Sunday, December 10, 2017

Les Mis in Vanemuine and SMOT: Assorted Thoughts

I'm not as young as I once were.

There was a time when I was able to watch Les Misérables five times in the span of a single month with no repercussions whatsoever, but nowadays, give me four Les Mises in three months and I'm an emotional wreck of a human being, hardly able to form full sentences about the experience.

Without further ado, here are some bullet points about my latest Les Mises.

Vanemuine, Tartu, Estonia

Photo by Maris Savik.

  • The Estonians have translated the musical's title. Instead of the original French title, it's known as Hüljatud.
  • This production is directed by Samuel Harjanne, who is a true Les Mis vet: from Gavroche to Enjolras to director! And indeed, he's directed a very good production of the show.
  • Every principal role but Marius is played by two alternates.
  • Loved Tamar Nugis as Javert. Classic style with a ponytail and a blue uniform. A classic performance, too, with a little bit of Philip Quast and a touch of Earl Carpenter. Really good.
  • Jean Valjean, Mikk Saar, sings very beautifully, but to my taste, his Valjean is too soft – for example, during What Have I Done, it seems like he's on the verge of tears most of the time. I prefer my Valjeans with a harder, more threatening edge.
  • The direction puts plenty of focus on Marius (Kaarel Targo) and Cosette's (Maria Listra) romance: first, when Marius is bumbling in Cosette's garden, they offer some comic relief, but during One Day More, you can't help feeling moved by their goodbyes. These two have such a short time onstage together, I'm happy to see a production that makes the most out of it.
  • The lighting design by Petri Tuhkanen! Some of the best I've ever seen in any musical. Clever use of shadows, strong colours, such strong contrasts that sometimes the light almost feels like a physical entity. Very beautiful.
  • Javert sports some thigh high boots on the barricade. I don't know what to think about that.

In a nutshell: this is a good production of Les Misérables. Not mindblowing or overwhelming – but not every production has to be. It's good and thoroughly enjoyable, and I like how it doesn't try to fix things that aren't broken. Very glad I saw it, and maybe one day when my Les Mis hangover has cured, I'll try to see the alternate cast too.

(Finnish friends: listen to a podcast episode that features an interview with director Harjanne here.)

Smålands Musik & Teater, Jönköping, Sweden

Photo by Lars Kroon.

I first saw this production in September and wrote about it here, so this time, just some more thoughts about my favourite characters.

Jean Valjean and Javert

  • Alexander Lycke's Valjean... The reason I bought tickets to two separate performances from the get-go. I've been a fan since 2010, I've said everything already, feels pointless repeating how much I adore Lycke in the role. This production is over soon and I might never see him play the part again, but I'm not going to feel sad about that – I'm just happy I got these two chances to see him as Valjean again.
  • Here's a detail I enjoyed, though. During The Bargain, you can tell Valjean sees right through the absurdity of it all, going as far as trying to exchange some can-you-believe-this looks with Madame Thénardier before it turns out she's just as greedy as her husband. Maybe there's a little spark of humour in him!
  • I have seen Philip Jalmelid play Javert twice before. At first, I thought he sings the part to perfection but acts too angrily, making Javert seem more like a Disney villain and less like a complex antagonist. But now, late in his second run in the role, he has calmed down just right. Suddenly, the performance is nothing short of perfect. This Javert is intense, determined, three-dimensional all the way through. I guess sometimes it takes a while to really appreciate a performance, maybe both the performer and the person watching need to take some time before warming up to the part, but I'm glad these things happen. One of my personal top 3 Javerts now.
  • Some bits I enjoyed especially:
    • Javert's attitude towards Monsieur le Maire taking a complete 180 degree turn when it turns out he's been Jean Valjean the whole time.
    • How Javert mockingly repeats Valjean's words about Marius needing a doctor's care under his breath in the sewer scene.
    • The Confrontation is so intense. There is nothing unnecessary going on, just a battle of wills... And, well, Javert almost getting his head bashed over with a chair – but that was also done very well. This Valjean definitely has that threatening edge.
  • From now on, no lesser Valjean & Javert duo will do. Maybe do not accompany me to Les Mis with me until this memory has faded. You're going to have a terrible time listening to my neverending these guys are all right, sure, but let me tell you about Valjean and Javert in the 2017 Jönköping production monologue.


Cosette and co.

  • The production has changed Cosettes since I last saw it. Linnea Hyltenfeldt's Cosette is nothing short of adorable, there is something so sweet and bubbly and lively to her. And then her smiling through her tears in the finale, knowing she'll lose her father soon but doing all she can to make their last moments together happy and calm... I love Cosette.
  • Cosette is way shorter than Valjean and Marius (who are both really tall), which is sorta cute. When Marius spins her around it's like she's flying a meter above the ground.
  • Cosette, Marius (Kalle Malmberg) and Éponine (Hanna Holmgren) all feel very young in this production, like teenagers. That's very good. I imagine this Marius has known Éponine for a long time and still thinks of her as a child, a little sister almost – whereas Cosette, in the young man's eyes, is a full-grown woman. It's even clearer than usual that Éponine really doesn't have any chance.
  • Cosette deserves so much more that what little this musical gives her.


  • I used to be an Enjolras person*. Nowadays, I'm way more into Valjean and Javert and, I admit, tend to zone out a bit during the barricade scenes. Luckily, this time around, my friend firmly told me to pay close attention to Petter Snive's Enjolras. I did, and found myself really liking the character, for the first time in years.
  • This Enjolras has energy and drive. He's also very, very done with all his friends when they don't seem to be sharing that, instead focusing on Marius's love life. It feels to me he's a bit apart from the rest of a group, a leader instead of a friend. I like that.
  • His death! One of the best Enjolras deaths I've ever seen: when it becomes clear there's nothing left to do, Enjolras sinks into violent, terrified desperation. Every trace of calmness and grace is gone, the whole thing turns into a suicide mission. It's not pretty, it's not majestic, it's horrible and very effective.
  • Nice Enjolraic looks are a bonus.

Other assorted thoughts

  • Two seats from me, a lucky soul was experiencing the magic of Les Misérables for the very first time. They gasped and pointed when Javert appeared onstage after Fantine's death – oh no, he's here and now he's going to get Valjean! I'm happy for that person.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect production of Les Mis (or perfect anything), but at least for now, this direction by James Grieve is the number one for me.

As I wrote at the start of this blog entry, four performances of Les Mis in the span of only three months is a lot. It's a marathon of a musical that makes me feel about five times more strongly that any other piece of theatre. I've been a fan for nine years soon but seeing the show live still makes my heart beat faster. It's been good, seeing all these productions, but now, it's about time for a little break.

I think these memories will last for a while.

    * According to a theory I came up with, you can divide the whole Les Misérables fandom in Team Enjolras and Team Javert. Actual favourite characters may vary, but no matter what, you're a member of one team or the other. Team Enjolras prefers the barricade scenes, can tell which barricade boy is which by their lines in Do You Hear the People Sing and likes modern AU fanfiction. Team Javert prefers the non-barricade scenes, has a secret soft spot for the 1978 movie adaptation with Anthony Perkins as Javert and holds their breath every time Jean Valjean and Javert are onstage at the same time.

    Saturday, November 4, 2017

    Nordic Reviews: Les Mis in Oslo

    This autumn in Oslo's Folketeateret, Scenekvelder has put together a memorable production of Les Misérables.

    At surface, it seems like a well-made if not very imaginative production of good ol' Les Mis: the music sounds good and all the leading actors have beautiful voices, there are big emotions and lots of people onstage, the sets are grand and the costumes suitably ragged.

    Under the surface, it's actually the oddest and most unfocused production of Les Mis I've ever seen.

    Let's take a look.

    André Søfteland as Jean Valjean and Hans Marius Hoff Mittet as Javert

    The new Norwegian production of Les Mis is directed by Per-Olav Sørensen. According to his bio in the souvenir programme, he has directed plenty of theatre, films and TV. No mention of any further stage musicals, though, and maybe it's no wonder – seeing this show, it feels like mega musicals might not be his best genre.

    First of all, the pacing of this production is strikingly slow. The music is in a way slower tempo than we're used to in contemporary productions of Les Mis. Everyone also takes their sweet time getting from place A to place B. For example, you know how Enjolras usually rushes onstage in One Day More, giving an energetic, dynamic impression? Here, he calmly walks to take his place downstage. There are many scenes where the pace is similarly sluggish, though the music and lyrics suggest fast action.

    Considering that, it's odd how all the way through, the direction is really, really afraid of giving anyone any quiet time alone.

    There's some unnecessary action going on during every other iconic solo of the show: Fantine changes into her prostitute costume in the middle of I Dreamed a Dream, Valjean gathers up firearms while singing Bring Him Home... It's as if the production doesn't really trust the source material, thinking people will get bored unless multiple things happen simultaneously all the time.

    The production has a huge ensemble and they're onstage a lot. Sometimes they simply hang out in the background while someone else sings a solo or a duet. That's really odd. It feels like they're breaking some unwritten rule of musical theatre.

    Usually, if there are others onstage during a solo, they're either a) listening to what the character has to say, like the Argentinians in Don't Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, b) are meant to signify something, like when Les Amis appear during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables as a visual representation of Marius's memories, or c) are backup dancers.

    But when you have, say, beggars sitting on street corners while Javert sings his heart out in Stars... What is their purpose in the scene? Do they relate to Javert somehow? Do they hear what he says, and if so, why don't they seem to care? Or the nuns that appear in Confrontation, calmly wrapping Fantine's body in a sheet while Jean Valjean and Javert yell at each other – why don't they do something to stop the fight, or at least act scared or annoyed?

    Why can't the main characters have these moments alone?

    Hans Marius Hoff Mittet as Javert and Haddy Njie as Fantine

    In general, I think the production's biggest issue is the lack of focus. Some productions have a way of leading the audience's gaze to the right spot and the right character in every scene. Here, so much is happening you don't know where to watch.

    In the souvenir programme, director Sørensen boasts that they have almost twice as many people onstage as an average production of Les Mis. He thinks it makes the whole thing more impressive. I disagree. Maybe, if the director had some good use for the extra ensemble, it really would be striking – but as is, it seems they're there just for grandness' sake. Not impressed.

    Granted, Folketeateret has a huge stage, both wide and deep, and I'm sure it has been a big challenge coming up with ways to fill the space. I have a feeling, though, that both sets (design by Petr Hlousek) and lighting (design by Reidar Andreas Richardsen) could have been used a bit more effectively to divide the big space into smaller compartments. The lighting design is actually sort of disappointing – with lots of hard edges and cold tones, I think it would seem more at home in some small-scale onstage adaptation of a Nordic noir novel.

    On the right, Karin Park as Fantine

    In his essay in the souvenir programme, director Sørensen says this production is all about realism. The thing is, I don't think Les Misérables is meant to be a realistic musical. To function as it should, I believe it requires a dash of melodrama, a touch of something grand and noble.

    In most productions, the way the characters' deaths are handled underlines the romantic undertone of the story. If the deaths are all majestic, like the iconic tableau of Enjolras lying on the barricade, it does not feel out of place when the characters rise from the dead in the musical's finale. But here, the whole epilogue is like from some other musical. After they unceremoniously roll Fantine into a sheet and dump Éponine in a sewer, it does not seem right they come back to welcome Valjean into the afterlife.

    This production is strongly reminiscent of the 2012 movie adaptation of Les Mis, both visually (the costume design by Oddfrid Ropstad especially) and direction-wise. I get the feeling Sørensen has watched the Tom Hooper film one time too many and tried bringing its brand of gritty realism onstage, without stopping to think whether the style Hooper chose actually benefits the source material or not.
    Don't get me wrong, the direction is not all bad. There are many good little details – like Cosette recognising the Thénardiers in the wedding – but sadly, it's the weird moments that stick out.

    I'm not going to make a full list, but here are three details that I found the silliest: Javert, who otherwise seems like a calm dude, straight up punches Jean Valjean not once but twice; Valjean reveals his true identity in the court by taking off his wig (must be hard being the only bald guy in all of France); in Paris, Marius follows Cosette around from one poor person to next and they end up wiping the same beggar's face.

    As far as I can tell, the cast is all good, it's just that oftentimes the directional decisions distracted me from focusing on the performances themselves. I wish I could tell you what André Søfteland's Valjean is like, but I really had a hard time concentrating on him with so many other weird things happening and so many other people onstage.

    I did like Javert, though.

    I got the vibe I would absolutely adore Hans Marius Hoff Mittet's portrayal of the character in some other production, or even here, if I got to see him again from the front row instead of the balcony. He had a nice undertone of calmness and introspection going on. That's something you don't see all that often these days, with so many overstatedly angry Javerts out there. Both Hoff Mittet's voice and his performance reminded me of the Finnish Sören Lillkung, a longtime favourite Javert of mine. So thumbs up!

    Andreas Hoff as Enjolras

    Besides Javert, there is an another, more surprising upside to this.

    To me, the most interesting thing in the whole show was the relationship in between the revolutionary Enjolras (played by Andreas Hoff) and the revolution's token sceptic Grantaire (Lasse Vermeli). In Hugo's original novel, many interpret Grantaire being unrequitedly in love with Enjolras, but here, the feelings are mutual.

    It's a thing in the Les Mis fandom, wanting to see these two characters together. This production got the memo.

    In the first act, Enjolras uses a lot of time convincing Grantaire the revolution's worth joining – most notably singing his whole verse in One Day More to Grantaire and Grantaire alone. At the same time, he teaches him how to shoot a gun, in the romantic comedy trope sort of way. You know, standing unnecessarily close to him, gently taking his hands to correct the way he holds the weapon. This goes on throughout the song.

    In the second act, they fight, they make up, they hold hands. When the barricade is about to fall, Enjolras bids Grantaire the most heartbreaking farewell in musical history by taking his hands and kissing them. Ah, my heart, this is worse than Titanic! Then, in the finale, Grantaire rushes to join Enjolras, and the two of them once again stand side by side in the afterlife. Good for them, and good for Grantaire especially. It must be hard being in love with someone who clearly loves you back, but loves the revolution even more.

    But all that said... Well, being a fan, I enjoyed seeing Enjolras and Grantaire's romance flourish onstage, it certainly made the production more fun to watch. At the same time, though, I think it stripped Enjolras of the role he's supposed to play. He's not onstage a lot, he only has a couple of scenes to convince the people of Paris (and also the audience) that the revolution is worth dying for. How can he do that when they make him spend most of his time telling his sceptic boyfriend it'll be nice dying together? They're a cute couple, but seriously, that's not what Enjolras is supposed to be doing.

    Lasse Vermeli as Grantaire

    In short, I suppose if you've never seen Les Mis before, this production works okay.

    The show looks good and sounds good, the iconic songs are of course all there, you get a grasp of what the story's about. If you're a big fan of Les Misérables the movie, you'll probably like this too, it's so obviously inspired by Tom Hooper's vision. The whole thing is very big and grandiose, if that's your thing. But if you're like me and know the original stage musical by heart, I'm certain you'll be struck by the weird pacing and the absurdity of the details.

    I'm glad I got to see this production once, but at the same time, I'm glad I don't have to see it ever again.

    Photos by Fredrik Arff.

    Tuesday, October 24, 2017


    Please note: Wasa Teater invited me to see this musical for free because it'll be featured in the Finnish musical podcast Musikaalimatkassa that I co-host.

    Wasa Teater's Ingvar! – en musikalisk möbelsaga is an odd musical.

    It's a sung-through musical about the furniture chain IKEA and its founder Ingvar Kamprad. Instead of painting a realistic picture of its titular character, though, Ingvar! turns the man into a myth and presents him as the messiah of the religion called capitalism. All this is told via cheerful folksy music – in Swedish, of course.

    I loved it.

    Ingvar! is composed by Erik Gedeon, with lyrics by Klas Abrahamsson. It premiered in Hamburg in 2009 ("Das Wunder von Schweden, eine musikalische Möbelsaga"). It debuted in Sweden in 2010, and since, it's been popping up in theatres all around the Swedish-speaking corner of the world.

    In Finland, Ingvar! has been performed in Helsinki (Svenska Teatern, 2016) before. In September 2017, it premiered in Wasa Teater in Vaasa, directed by Markus Virta.

    Me and my friend met up with actors Anna-Maria Hallgarn and Erik-André Hvidsten before the show to record an interview for our musical podcast Musikaalimatkassa (here's a link to the interview in English and the full episode in Finnish). Among other things, we talked about how reserved Finnish theatre audiences can be: someone might think a play is the funniest thing they've ever seen, but if everyone else in the audience is quiet, they don't dare to laugh out loud.

    Ridiculous, isn't it? Well, sure enough, watching Ingvar! in Wasa Teater, I noticed I was acting exactly like that stereotypical Finn, stifling my laughter because no one around me was laughing. Remembering the conversation, I can't help wondering if all the people around me were doing the same...

    I mean to say that Ingvar! is hilarious.

    It's so funny. Something about the contrast in between the catchy music, the subject matter – the birth of a multinational furniture mammoth – and the lyrics – ranging from awkward praise of the Swedish countryside to songs about revenue and exploiting foreign workforce – got me. It's a weird combo, but really delightful at that.

    Ingvar! presents Ingvar Kamprad's life story like a twisted version of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. From the moment he is born, little Ingvar's family starts teaching him in the ways of capitalism. And sure enough, he grows up to be a first-grade capitalist, one who swears by moderate pay but also moderate living.

    As the show progresses, the story of our hero gradually turns into mythos. Ingvar is loved and lauded as a genius, then crucified (quite literally!) for being a Nazi symphatizer and heaven knows what else, but not even death can quite hold him back. By the end of the story, the fictional Ingvar is completely divorced from reality. For starters, the real Kamprad is still alive...

    The show also recounts the beginnings of IKEA. I've never really thought about IKEA having an origin story.

    I'm young enough to feel like the stores have always excisted here in Finland, it's simply the way everyday furniture shopping is done. It's fun how Ingvar! makes you think about the concept. Picking your items from a warehouse all by yourself and everything in the store from the colours of the building to the menu of the restaurant proudly oozing Swedish vibes seems normal since we're used to it, but indeed, someone's had to come up with those ideas – and at first, they might have seemed weird to others.

    The musical is in Swedish, but the theatre offers subtitles in Finnish and English. That's good. After watching Les Misérables in Swedish for around 20 times, I'm getting a good grasp of standard musical vocabulary – you know, love this and revolution that... But here, with lyrics about bank balance and salaries, it's good to have a translation at hand.

    The musical has a cast of eight: Johan Aspelin, Anna-Maria Hallgarn, Erik-André Hvidsten, Saara Lehtonen, Thomas Lundin, Richard Mitts, Tove Qvickström and Maria Udd.

    Hvidsten portrays the titular character from cradle to grave. The others act like a Greek choir of sorts. They're relatives, employees, pieces of furniture (!), praising Ingvar one minute and bashing him the next. The cast doubles as the orchestra. They're a multitalented group, playing everything from violin and guitar to accordion and reed organ.

    The cast sounds fantastic together, both the vocals and the instrumentals. This musical is a joy to listen to. It also looks like they're having fun onstage – so it's easy to have fun in the audience, too.

    If anything, I'm sorry I didn't see the first Finnish production of Ingvar! in Helsinki. But better late than never. Watching this musical was way more fun than any shopping trip to IKEA ever could be.

    Photos by Frank A. Unger.

    Sunday, October 22, 2017

    Jekyll & Hyde in Salon Teatteri

    Please note: I saw Salon Teatteri's production on Jekyll & Hyde for free in exchange of writing an article about the musical's history for the production's souvenir programme. If you visit Salo this fall, go to the theatre and buy ten of those.

    We're so lucky here in Finland!

    During the last four years, we've had not one, not two, but now three fine productions of the musical Jekyll & Hyde, all within a 300 km radius. Sure, I doubt that most people see this as an especially exciting series of events – but for me, a borderline obsessive Jekyll & Hyde fan, it's a huge thrill.

    So let's see what Salon Teatteri's autumn 2017 production has to offer.

    Hyde, feeling alive

    Salon Teatteri is an amateur theatre (did you know that the word amateur is originally French and means lover of? What a perfect word!) with a tiny performance space, so it's quite a feat they've staged a musical as big as this one. But no need to worry: it's an impressive show all the way through.

    I was surprised to find out the small space actually works in the favour of the production. You can't help feeling tense when there's a murder taking place a couple of meters in front of you.

    Pauliina Salonius's direction emphasises the dark and violent parts of the story. Hyde's mistreatment of Lucy and the murder at the end of the first act felt so close and personal I got a little knot in my stomach. I saw the show with lots of friends and I know some of them found the violence a bit too graphic. I see where they're coming from, the song Alive especially has some pretty gruesome moments. Personally, though, I think the mood is mostly intense in a good way.

    The set design (by Riku Suvitie) features lots of mirrors and a laboratory that's situated on a sort of a loft. Throw that together with some stark lighting (by Timo A. Aalto) and lots of smoke and you get a deliciously creepy atmosphere. I also rather like the costumes (by Taija Jokilehto). It's nice how Emma gets to wear a sensible, black dress instead of the dainty feminine things so many productions give her. She looks almost uncomfortable in her fancy engagement party dress, and I think that makes sense – it is after all implied that neither Jekyll or Emma feel at home in the high society.

    Another nice thing for me is that there are two Finnish translations of this musical, and in Salo, they're using the one that was also used in the first production of J&H I ever saw (by Tuomas Parkkinen, Jussi Vahvaselkä and Kristina Vahvaselkä). It's feels good, somehow, to hear those same lyrics and words again. I'm not claiming it's the best possible translation of the musical, but it's comfortably familiar.

    Emma in the laboratory

    In Salo, the musical's titular characters are played by Peter Nyberg. His Jekyll is short-tempered but seems genuinely excited about his experiment. His Hyde, then, is super sadistic, and Jekyll pretty much throws in the towel as soon as Hyde is let loose – he gets addicted to being Hyde fast. It becomes clear early that he's fighting a losing battle, whatever optimism he had in the first act is replaced with desperation. All in all, you can tell Nyberg has a good time playing the roles, and he sings the part just right.

    I like how this production makes Jekyll rather young (Nyberg is born in 1993). Jekyll/Hyde is often played by men approaching middle age, and in the original novel, Jekyll is in his 50s. But, as we discussed with a friend afterwards, I think it makes more sense to make him younger in the musical. A middle-aged guy should have enough life experience to know better than to test the formula on himself. But if it's someone young and rash who probably got his doctorate two weeks ago... The whole affair suddely feels a bit more believable.

    There are two alternating Lucys and Emmas in this production. I saw Rosita Ahlfors as Lucy and Laura Flemming as Emma. Ahlfors's Lucy feels very earnest and rather naïve. Therefore, she is an easy target for Hyde to channel all his destructive energy against, hurting her just as he wants. Maybe it's no wonder, since Flemming's Emma is level-headed with a calm precence. She seems like a person who will shut you up in a fight, but do it in such a gentle manner that you won't even get the satisfaction of getting a rise out of her. There is no way Jekyll – or Hyde, for that matter – could boss her around.

    However, as I've mentioned before, my favourite character in this story is Jekyll's lawyer and best friend Utterson. Teemu Veikkolainen doesn't disappoint. From his first line, I knew I was going to enjoy the performance. He's pointedly calm and proper, in contrast to Jekyll's temper. He seems like someone you would trust in a tight spot, and with your legal documents, but there's also a dash of humour and a pinch of forbidden desires thrown in the mix. I like him!

    The whole ensemble works well together. Aki-Matti Kallio's Simon Stride stuck out to me especially, he is a fun highlight. The production cuts some of the character's already meagre material, but Kallio's pompous Stride steals the show nevertheless.

    Utterson and Hyde

    All in all, I enjoyed this production a lot. It's not perfect (for example, the music – the orchestration is based on pre-recorded tracks that, in my opinion, are often way too slow. I simply prefer orchestrations with a faster tempo). But, as a whole, it's an entertaining, creepy-in-a-good-way show. I'm going back at least once.

    Finland! Indeed, what a fantastic place for a Jekyll & Hyde fan to live.

    Photos by Mika Nurmi / Studio X.
    P.S. Suomenkieliset lukijat: tästä linkistä voitte kuunnella Musikaalimatkassa-podcastimme jakson, jossa Peter Nyberg kertoo roolityöstään. Ja lukekaa myös Teatterikärpäsen puraisuja -blogin arvostelu esityksestä!

    Wednesday, October 11, 2017

    Cats and The Last Ship in Finland

    Today, short reviews of two new Finnish non-replica musical productions.

    Cats, Tampereen Teatteri


    Photo by Harri Hinkka.

    This autumn, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats is back in Finland. It's been almost ten years since our last full-blown production of the musical, so I guess it's about time.

    I was in the wrong mindset when I saw this musical. I had seen the mind-alteringly good opening night of the new Swedish production of Les Misérables a week before, and watching Cats, my mind kept wandering back to Jean Valjean, Fantine and Javert. Had I known Les Mis was coming up when I bought the Cats ticket, I would definitively chosen another date. But what can you do – when I found out, this season's Cats performances were already practically sold out anyway.

    But yeah, about the show itself...

    I was a bit surprised to see how closely director Georg Malvius's version of the musical resembles the original Trevor Nunn direction. There's only one major change: the show is set in motion when a rat (played by Risto Korhonen) goes to bed and dreams of a world filled with felines. The rat doesn't speak, but he takes part in scenes, observes the Jellicles and tries to get accepted into their tribe.

    Other than that, apart from a couple of fun little details – like Bustopher Jones frequenting a different sort of gentlemen's club, complete with pole dancing tomcats – the show looks, sounds and feels pretty traditional. The colours of the costumes (designed by Tuomas Lampinen) are reminiscent of John Napier's original designs, and even the orchestration resembles the original cast recordings from the 80s.

    That's not to say the production isn't nice to watch, quite the contrary. My personal favourite scenes were Growltiger's Last Stand and Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat, both performed by Tero Harjunniemi (a former Valjean, another Les Mis reminder). The former is especially fun because Harjunniemi gets to show off his operatic training by singing an Italian aria with Helena Rängman's Lady Griddlebone.

    But despite all the good things, in the end, I liked this production – well, well enough.

    The cast is talented, well-trained, and they clearly enjoy what they're doing, and the show looks beautiful. Still, the performance didn't make me feel much. Maybe it was simply the previous week's Les Mis overload distracting me, or maybe I've outgrown Cats for good (it was my very first favourite musical after all, I listened to it so much in 2008 I'm kind of permanently fed up with it nowadays). Maybe both.

    Recommended, even if I didn't really feel the magic myself this time.



    The Last Ship / Viimeinen laiva, Turun kaupunginteatteri

    Photo by Otto-Ville Väätäinen.

    The Last Ship, or Viimeinen laiva in Finnish, is a musical with music and lyrics by Sting. It premiered in Chicago in 2014. After a three-month-long Broadway run (the musical's producers lost their entire $15 million investment), the show has now arrived to Europe. It had its European premiere in Finland, in Turun kaupunginteatteri this September.

    The musical (book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey) tells the story of a man, Gideon Fletcher, who runs away from his hometown in his teens, comes back 15 years later and finds out everything has changed. While he's been sailing the seven seas, Gideon's old girlfriend has found herself a new man and the shipyard that's been the source of the town's livelihood has gone bankrupt. To fight off desperation, the unemployed shipbuilders decide to return to the shipyard, build one last ship and sail away together, while Gideon tries to win back the love of his ex-sweetheart.

    I really don't know what to make of this story. It's an uncomfortable mix of realism and fantasy. It's too firmly grounded in the real world to feel like a fairytale. For example, it's explicitly set in Wallsend, Sting's own home town in England. On the other hand, it's also way too fairytale-like to feel real. For example... well, that whole shipbuilding business, really. A bunch of dudes building a ship to sail away towards new adventures, seriously?

    I'm certain the titular ship and its maiden voyage are meant to symbolise something, but I don't know what. Freedom, maybe – but how would the shipbuilders running away from their problems solve anything, since it didn't work out for Gideon in the beginning? And what does that say about the characters who are left behind? Maybe the set design (by Jani Uljas) gives us a key to this mystery when, near the end of the show, the ship is represented by a close-to-lifesize cutout of RMS Titanic's propellers.

    The love story is dull. Boy abandons girl, girl pines after boy, boy comes back and assumes he still has a claim to girl even though they haven't spoken to each other in 15 years and she's now with someone else. The musical does not pass the Bechdel test. I know that's common in musical theatre (some of my personal favourites don't pass it either), but times are changing. An original musical written in 2014 should know better.

    All that said, I feel there's a compelling story hidden in here somewhere. Change, desperation, perseverance, lost love... these could be the elements of an interesting story. But as it is, it's just The Full Monty rehashed, this time with ships and clichéd romance.

    Turun kaupunginteatteri's production of The Last Ship is beautifully staged and performed. I paid special attention to the orchestra, conducted by Markus Länne the night I saw the show – they sound fantastic, and the sound system is set up perfectly. You can hear each and every sound from the orchestra pit clearly and beautifully. I wouldn't mind the theatre staging an instrumental musical concert! The music's quite nice, too, though not especially memorable. I'm not a Sting fan, but the tunes are pleasant to listen to.

    Too bad that the plot is what it is. No matter how talented the cast and the orchestra, how impressive the sound system and how handsome the visuals, it's simply not a musical for me.

    P.S. Both Cats and The Last Ship have surtitles in English.

    Tuesday, September 19, 2017


    Hei kaikki, minulla on ilmoitusluontoista asiaa: minusta on tullut podcast-juontaja!

    Päätimme keväällä ystäväni Laura Haajasen kanssa, että aika on kypsä Suomen ensimmäiselle musikaalipodcastille. Monta pitkää kesäpäivää meni suunnitellessa ja äänitellessä, nyt on aika pamauttaa tulokset kaikkien kuultaviksi. Ensimmäinen täysimittainen jakso saa ensiesityksensä tänään.

    Miksi podcast? Siksi, että bloggaaminen on kovin yksinäistä puuhaa. Joskus blogitekstit toki herättävät keskustelua Twitterissä tai kavereiden kesken reaalimaailmassa, mutta lähtökohtaisesti bloggari naputtelee tunteitaan sanoiksi yksin ja lukijat sitten lukevat tekstin kukin omassa yksinäisyydessään.

    Podcastin asetelma on erilainen: jokaisessa jaksossa puhutaan musikaaleista vähintään kaksin, usein isommallakin porukalla vaihtuvien vieraiden ja haastateltavien kanssa. Vaihteeksi dialogia yksinlaulun sijaan! Nautin kirjoittamisesta ja jatkan totta kai tulevaisuudessa teatterista bloggaamista ihan kuin ennenkin, mutta on hauska päästä kokeilemaan myös toisenlaista kertomisen tapaa.

    Musikaalimatkassa-podcastin nimi kertoo, mistä on kyse: otamme kuuntelijat mukaan musikaalimatkoillemme niin Suomessa kuin ulkomailla. Juttelemme jostakin illan esitykseen liittyvästä aiheesta, tapaamme ehkä teokseen perehtyneitä faneja tai taiteilijoita musikaalin takana, jaamme näytöksen herättämät ajatukset. Toisinaan istumme alas vieraan kanssa ja otamme käsittelyyn jonkin musikaalimaailman ilmiön.

    Julkaisemme uuden jakson suunnilleen joka toinen tiistai. Syksyn aikana aiomme puhua esimerkiksi fanittamisesta ja fanitettavana olemisesta, moraalisesta mielipahasta ja tasa-arvosta. Kerromme lisää suunnitelmistamme podcastin esittelyjaksossa.

    Podcastin kautta haluamme jakaa oman rakkautemme musikaaleihin, tarjota Suomen musikaalifaneille ja musiikkiteatterin maailmasta kiinnostuneille jotain uutta ja hauskaa ja samalla tuoda katsojia ja alan ammattilaisia lähemmäs toisiaan. Meillä kokijoilla ja tekijöillä on yhteinen intohimo, ja toivomme, että voimme podcastissa ja sen ympärillä puhua siitä yhdessä.

    Julkaisimme juuri ekan jaksomme, jossa lähdemme musikaalimatkalle Ruotsiin Les Misérablesia katsomaan – ja otamme mennessämme selvää siitä, onko satatuntinen kurjuuden viemäreissä kieriskely oikeastaan edes hyvä musikaali. Toivottavasti saamme matkaseuraa monista teatterinystävistä niin tälle kuin tuleville reissuille!

    Kuuntele podcastia Soundcloudissa tai iTunesissa
    Seuraa podcastia Facebookissa ja Twitterissä

    Monday, September 18, 2017

    Les Misérables, Smålands Musik & Teater

    It's good, getting your autumn started with some top-quality Les Mis!

    A little over a week ago, me and two good friends of mine traveled to Jönköping, Sweden to see the opening night of Smålands Musik & Teater and Kulturhuset Spira's new production of Les Misérables. Apart from the leading actors, this production (directed by James Grieve) is essentially identical to Wermland Opera's 2016 production I saw twice last year. So if you want to read my general opinions, check out my first and second 2016 reviews. In them, I talk about the direction and the visuals, no need to repeat that here.

    Instead, a couple of impressions about my favourite performances.

    I already wrote about this a while ago: my number one reason to see this show, and the reason I convinced my friends to come with me, was that the leading role of Jean Valjean is played by Alexander Lycke. From 2010 to 2012, he played the same role in Åbo Svenska Teater here in Finland. I loved that production with all my heart, so of course I had to travel to see this one too.

    This is just so special to me. The relationship in between me and Les Mis, if you can use that word to describe the bond in between a musical and a person, goes deeper than me just being a fan of the show. After seeing it live 30+ times, it still hits me harder than any other musical. The ÅST production is especially important to me since it marks something of a turning point in my life. So you can imagine how exciting it was seeing Lycke in the role again!

    Even so, it's nice that instead of a walk down the memory lane, this is a different take with all sorts of different details. I think Lycke's portrayal of Valjean has grown lots and lots – he was certainly good the last time, no doubt about that, but the character feels even more 3D and well-rounded now. I guess I have grown and changed during the past six years, too, maybe I now look at the character in a different way myself too. So, it's a little bit more grown-up edition of the character for a little bit more grown-up me.

    I already knew that this direction treats Valjean well, giving him space and depth. This time, I especially loved... no, scratch that, I was especially heartbroken to watch the character growing older during the course of the show. No overblown makeup, just some different wigs and very good acting.

    Compared to Christer Nerfont, who I saw and loved in Wermland Opera's production, I really can't say whose acting I prefer. I think Lycke's Valjean is a bit more undemonstrative and guarded. Seems like this dude hardly admits his own feelings to himself, let alone others, until they become too much to bear and burst out in a series of wonderfully beautiful songs.

    And about those, I've said it before and I'll say it again: no one sings the part better than Alex. I've nothing to add to that, that's just how it is.

    If Jean Valjean was good, Javert wasn't half bad either.  

    Philip Jalmelid is the only Wermland Opera lead to reprise his role in Smålands Musik & Teater's production. Back in Wermland Opera, I didn't really agree with all the details of his performance. While my personal interpretation of the character is still quite different from Jalmelid's, I appreciate how his Javert has calmed down since last year, become a little more restrained. The character feels a bit older and a bit more realistic now.

    Though really, if you sing Stars as perfectly as Jalmelid does, I won't care if the rest of your performance is delivered via sock puppetry. Finding the right words to describe this rendition of Stars – my favourite Les Mis song! – is hard. Jalmelid's take was powerful in Karlstad already, but now, experienced from the front row...

    It was like his voice filled every single square inch in the theatre, squeezing air out of my lungs and all wandering thoughts out of my mind. After the song, I was honestly a bit startled to hear my own voice: for a second there, I forgot all manners and just made the highest and loudest sound I possibly could. I needed to get all that excitement and emotion out of my system somehow.

    If Stars was the highlight of the first act, Bring Him Home was easily the best part of the second half. I of course knew what was coming, I have heard that one from the front row a couple of times before, but still, it never fails to amaze me. How does Alex turn the most boring tune in the whole show into its most beautiful song? No idea, but here we are again.

    Another performance I really liked was Anna-Hanna Rosengren as Fantine.

    I haven't seen a Fantine quite like this before: young, shy and withdrawn, but with a lot of fire under the surface, ready to flash out. And her voice! I Dreamed a Dream is easily the most overdone song of the musical, being covered left and right, but I got chills listening to Rosengren. (By the way! You can listen to her, and the others, in this Facebook video from the musical's press conference. The picture is sideways at first, but don't let that bother you, they sound great nevertheless.)

    I really love how this production has Fantine and Cosette sharing a couple of little moments. They don't meet physically, but there's for example this moment during Castle on a Cloud where little Cosette and Fantine, now a spirit in the afterlife, sing the She says, Cosette, I love you very much line together. Maybe I'm becoming a big softy, but now, it made me even more emotional than last year.

    Other than these three... Well, that'll have to wait until me and my friends go back to Sweden in December. I think I need another round of this before stating any opinions about the other characters. I only have two eyes and one brain, so I sadly cannot both stare at my favourites with unwavering attention and focus on everybody else all at once! Next time, I shall try to pay a little more attention to Enjolras & co.

    But all in all, you know what? I love musicals, I love Les Mis, and sometimes life is very very good.

    Photos by Lars Kroon.