That Eugene Onegin (both the Pushkin poem and the Tchaikovsky opera) would be considered a tale ripe for musical theaterization is not all that surprising. Oozing with romance and the ache of lost love, there are a great many innately dramatic things about the rise and fall of a cocky Russian playboy who is forced to live out his life alone with his selfish and reckless decisions.
What is surprising—flummoxing, actually—is that Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hill’s adaptation would register as something that Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company would feel the need to produce.
Somehow a supposedly big hit in Canada, Onegin is an uninteresting and underdeveloped exercise in needless adaptation, one that is devoid of any character development or earnestness. Speaking of earnestness, Greater Boston Stage Company opened its season this past fall with a musical adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, another head-scratchingly bad adaptation that—forgive me if I’m overstating here—no one asked for.
It’s hard to imagine that Onegin wasn’t at least in part inspired by the success of the brilliant and wondrous Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, another modern musical that uses a dusty old Russian story as its jumping-off point. But Gladstone and Hill also seem inspired by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s 2010 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock musical that reimagined historical figures as eyelinered rock stars.
It is often said that characters in musicals sing when words alone won’t suffice. For Onegin, then, when simple singing won’t cut it, some characters grab a mic stand and turn into rock stars. Why, you might ask? That I don’t have the answer to.
Director Weylin Symes and company have difficulty navigating these rock moments with sincerity, usually due to awkward staging or a bit of miscasting. But other than that, for a musical I dislike so much, Symes’ production is largely very stylish and well acted. (Jeff Adelberg’s lighting helps immensely on the stylish front.)
This production’s primary trouble is by way of the doomed playboy himself. Mark Linehan just isn’t right for the role, visually or otherwise. With long, slicked-back hair and eyes that veer more closely toward menacing than seductive, Linehan’s frantic and clumsy musical performances felt more in line with Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde than a Russian dandy at the end of his rope. Too frequently resorting to an oddly shrill, grave scream-singing, the score does Linehan’s voice no favors, and vice versa.
On the positive side of things, Michael Jennings Mahoney is an appealing and endearing Lensky, the man that Onegin kills in a duel, and Sarah Pothier is lovely as Tatyana, Onegin’s great love that isn’t to be.
During the musical’s opening number, the cast proposes a drinking game to make the evening go by a little faster. I just want to go on record and say that that would have been a very, very good idea.
ONEGIN. THROUGH 3.31 AT GREATER BOSTON STAGE COMPANY, 395 MAIN ST., STONEHAM. GREATERBOSTONSTAGE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.