SURREY — Canada’s current top hit musical is making a stop in Surrey as part of a tour of British Columbia.
Onegin, created by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille and presented by Vancouver-based Arts Club Theatre Company, plays Surrey Arts Centre’s main stage from Feb. 21 to March 3.
Onegin (pronounced On-Yay-Ghin) is a new take on the classic Russian story, from the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin through the ballet by Tchaikovsky.
The swashbuckling Evgeni Onegin moves to a country estate he has inherited, but his romantic charms stir passions long forgotten by its residents. Poet Vladimir Lensky is incensed after Onegin flirts with his fiancée Olga, and challenges Onegin to a duel.
And that’s only the first act.
Asked how it feels to have taken such a legendary story, put a new spin on it and see it become a hit, Gladstone said “it feels really special.”
“It’s that weird, elusive thing in Canadian theatre where a show is having a really long, beautiful life,” said Gladstone, the play’s co-director and co-creator. “But I’m also grateful that it’s come at this stage of my career. I’m 45, so I’ve been around a bit and I know the specialness and uniqueness of it, so I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can.”
Gladstone was inspired to launch the project after a stint with Vancouver Opera, training “mid-career” directors in directing for opera.
“As part of that program I was the assistant director on a production of Eugene Onegin, the Tchaikovsky ballet,” he noted. “I had a lot of time to sit there to watch and soak it in and see that even though this piece was set in the early 19th century, nothing had really changed in terms of how we interact, how we love, how we still love the bad boy. Those sort of ideas were very prevalent back then and still are today.”
The play’s story can be summed up very simply but, as with all things Russian, there are immense depths to be explored with that storyline.
“There’s an amazing simplicity to it,” Gladstone said. “But the depth comes from the various sides of the story, whether it’s falling in love, or falling in love with the wrong person, or not being ready for something. There seems to be so many ways to look at it that we can all see ourselves in it.
“There’s also a mix of young love, teenaged passion, and later we also see a more stable kind of love, a longer lasting kind of love.
“There’s a Russian quality to it, but there’s a real sense of fun and joy that we want to have a good time with the audience.”
As a director, it must be a real thrill to incorporate a duel into the piece.
“When we were writing the adaptation, we realized that the modern audience doesn’t necessarily know all the rules for dueling,” Gladstone said. “So we specifically wrote a song called ‘Rules for Duels’ that explains them.”
Onegin seeks to set itself apart in musical terms as well. Gladstone and Hille collaborated on the music and lyrics, and arrived at something unique.
“It started that I would send (Hille) ideas for snatches of songs, and some things that I thought were ideas for lyrics,” Gladstone said. “And then she would run them through the Veda Hille genius machine and come back with a more fully formed song. And then as we went along we reached a point where we were writing together around a piano.
“It became a true collaboration. We really feel we’ve both written it, and we both fill in the gaps about how to write a big musical. We both have separate things we bring myself.”
Gladstone says the music defies a neat categorization.
“We’ve tried to figure out how to label it. The influences are all over the place, from little bits of Tchaikovsky to indie folk, to drum beats like (rapper and songwriter) Kendrick Lamar. Sometimes we’ve asked ourselves, ‘What would Kanye do?’ So it does kind of run the gamut. It has its own sound. The band is piano, keyboard, cello, drums and guitars. And the cast fills in every now and then on electric guitars and bells.”
Produced through the Arts Club’s Silver Commissions Project, which has developed new plays since 2006, Onegin collected 10 wins at the 2016 Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards, making history as the first production to win all but one of the awards in the Large Theatre category.
After its initial hit run in Vancouver, Gladstone has seen the creation take on a life of its own.
“I’m always amazed at how it all comes together, when everyone’s up there playing and singing their hearts out,” he explained. “Many of the cast have performed this show over 100 times now, so there is a real feeling that it is a separate thing from us, and that it’s living on, and people are going to and once they see it once they want to see it again.
“It’s really a testament to collaboration,” Gladstone added. “Veda and I couldn’t have done this on our own, we couldn’t have performed it on our own — it is greater than the sum of its parts. It amounts to something bigger and more beautiful than any of us could have individually come up with.”
A show at Cranbrook’s Key City Theatre on Feb. 6 launched Onegin’s current tour, and also marked the first date for a new cast. Gladstone said some of the original cast are staying on, in different roles, and some are coming in from other shows to continue with tour.
For the touring show, the cast features Lauren Jackson (Tatyana Larin), Jonathan Winsby (Evgeni Onegin), Erik Fraser Gow (Vladimir Lensky), Meaghan Chenosky (Olga Larin and others), Caitriona Murphy (Madame Larin and others), Andrew Wheeler (Prince Gremin and others) and Nadeem Phillip (many others). Musicians in the orchestra are Barry Mirochnick (percussion and guitar), Jennifer Moersch (cello) and Marguerite Witvoet (piano and keyboards).
In Surrey, special performances include Opening Night Wednesday (on Feb. 21, when ticketholders can arrive early to relax, socialize, and enjoy complimentary appetizers from 6:30 p.m.) and First Friday (Feb. 23, dessert and coffee after the show, with a chance to meet the actors). Also, a Talkback Thursday session on March 1 will include a post-show chat with the actors, along with cake to celebrate Surrey Arts Centre’s 50th anniversary that day.
Tickets for the Surrey dates range from $29 to $49 at the box office (call 604-501-5566 or visit tickets.surrey.ca).