Arts theater review

Roll over Pushkin

Frolicking musical parody of ‘Onegin’ features talented cast and catchy tunes but little Pushkin

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An altercation between Lensky (Michael Jennings Mahoney) and Onegin (Mark Linehan), as the rest of the cast of 'Onegin' looks on.
Maggie Hall Photography

Based on the Poem by Pushkin & the Opera by Tchaikovsky
Written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille
Directed by Weylin Symes
Greater Boston Stage Company
Stoneham, MA
March 14–31

Alexander Pushkin is considered by many to be Russia’s greatest poet. When Nabokov approached the monumental task of translating “Eugene Onegin” into English, he felt the need to apologize to the author for transforming his poem “into [...] honest roadside prose — all thorn, but cousin to your rose.” In this respectful, self-deprecating poem published in The New Yorker, he characterizes his labor as “dove-droppings on [Pushkin’s] monument.” Such is the deference given to Pushkin.

And thus, “Eugene Onegin” strikes me as a strange choice for adaptation into a “musical-meets-rock-concert,” as this production is characterized by the director Weylin Symes. Perhaps in the wake of the raucous success enjoyed by Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a musical based on a chapter from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it seemed like a natural choice formulated on a tried-and-true recipe. Audiences seem to enjoy Russian kitsch, Broadway-style adaptations based on monumental works of literature, and interactive theatre.

Pushkin is not widely read in America, partly because his poetry does not translate well. As a result, this kind of vulgarization may be a person’s only exposure to the poet, and however entertaining it may be, it does seem a shame that the only way to introduce something to the general populace is to deface it. But maybe, the self-referential humor of this particular show is a plea for it not to be taken too seriously.

In its own right, the show is quite entertaining with an enthusiastic cast and tasteful staging. The two sisters, Olga (Josephine Ellwood) and Tatyana (Sarah Pothier) were as different vocally as they are in character. Ellwood’s full-bodied, penetrating voice is the workhorse in the choral numbers and shines in the solos. Pothier portrays Tatyana convincingly, both as a shy, naive bookworm just emerging from her cocoon of the Larin Estate and as the elegant, self-possessed society lady she becomes at the end. She pairs demonstrative facial expressions and graceful dance movements, suggestive of ballet training, with a mezzo-soprano voice that combines fragility and sweetness.

The strength of the male leads lay more in their acting and comedic timing. Mark Linehan, in the role of Onegin, plays a brooding, cynical, roguish “bad boy” rather than a haughty, elegant, well-educated aristocrat, but he does it to perfection. His musical numbers are very much in the spirit of rock-and-roll, replete with tropes like prolonged hair tossing, winking at audience members, and getting on his knees.

There are many opportune bits of comedy sprinkled throughout the show, such as the deliberately awkward changing of seasons, the ballad of Monsieur Triquet (Christopher Chew), and the whimsical use of cell phones. Although Stoneham seemed to be a bit of a tough crowd, the cast did a fantastic job of interacting with and engaging the audience.

The mise-en-scène is one of the more notable aspects of this production. Rarely have I seen lighting used to such impressive effect. The backdrop was composed of red velvet curtains spread with Russian-patterned shawls, a column dressed as a birch tree, and electric candles everywhere, which cast a warm, welcoming glow on the whole room. In moments of tension, these candles flashed, and in moments of sorrow, dimmed. Spotlights, red lights, blue lights, and lantern lights each created a unique mood to suit the scene. The choreography brought a cohesiveness to the ensemble numbers and provided a creative vehicle for dialogue and exposition. My personal favorite is the introduction of Onegin as he rides in a troika and flirts with the horses who are portrayed by Pothier and Ellwood.

It is always a pleasure when a performance is accompanied by live music — this production is graced by a lively four-member band that sits on stage. The majority of the musical numbers are pleasant on the ears, but not especially memorable, with the exception of a couple songs, like “Oh, Dear Father” and “Let Me Die,” which absolutely refuse to stop jangling around in one’s brain after the show.

If you’re looking for a sincere adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse, then this is not the production for you. However, if you are looking for a humorous, light-hearted musical parody of a classic Russian story, then hitch up your troika, grab your palliative bottle of vodka, and direct your driver to the faraway land of Stoneham.