High Performance Rodeo show Onegin puts the party back in Russian prose poetry

Well, it’s that magical time of year again, when Calgary stages are bustling with new work, and theatre critics are tripping over each other at openings all over town. Well, OK, maybe there aren’t quite so many theatre critics anymore, but there is still an awful lot of shows.

One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo is off to a roaring start for the 32nd year, and I’m jumping in on Day 3 with Onegin, co-presented with Theatre Calgary.

The rock opera retelling of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was hatched at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, where indie songwriter Veda Hille has established herself as a force in musical theatre. Together with playwright/director Amiel Gladstone and broadcaster/author Bill Richardson, she created the monster hit touring show Do You Want What I Have Got: A Craigslist Cantata. Hille and Gladstone are repeating their success with Onegin, which garnered a host of awards in Vancouver and is now on a cross-Canada tour.

The show is playful and irreverent, playing fast and loose with the fourth wall, but becoming progressively darker and more introspective as the early love story turns to tragedy. The through-composed piece demands a broad vocal range in both style and pitch, and the cast members are uniformly up to the challenge. It feels a bit cliché to say that Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe are spectacular as the cynical narcissist Onegin and the shy young Tatyana, who falls for him immediately (when aren’t these two spectacular?). The lovely surprise was Lauren Jackson, who is appropriately sweet as Tatyana’s sister, Olga — but with a mischievous wit that makes Olga every bit as appealing as her sister. Jackson takes over the role of Tatyana later in the tour, and half of me fully intends to hop a plane to check it out. 

This is going to be one of those shows where people ask you years from now, “Did you see Onegin when it was in Calgary?” It runs in the Max Bell Theatre at Arts Commons until Jan. 13, and the music from the show is available on Veda Hille’s website.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.