Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Book of Mormon, Det Ny Teater

Seems like all musicals I've seen lately deal with religious themes. After Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Prince of Egypt, last Saturday, it was time for the Danish production of The Book of Mormon in Copenhagen's Det Ny Teater.

Of course, compared with the rest of that lot, the satirical and parodical Book of Mormon is a different thing entirely. Lately, this story of two clueless Mormon missionaries in Uganda has sneakily become one of my favourite musicals – I thought I didn't much like it, but somehow, I've still seen it in three different countries during the last year alone.

Let's see how the Danish production fares.


In all honesty, I'm still confused Det Ny Teater's production, directed by Kasper Holten. It had plenty of moments I enjoyed, but somehow, I'm still baffled by it. So, to clear my mind, maybe I'll start off simply by listing some details.

Things I enjoyed:

  • Price's moves! Silas Holst is a professional dancer, and that shows. His footwork during All-American Prophet is a joy to watch.
  • All of the Ugandans have plenty of personality, more than in any other production I've seen. Their costumes by Stefen Aarfing are also nice.
  • Mafala (Robert Bengtsson) and Nabulungi (Lea Thiim Harder) have a very sweet father-daughter relationship.
  • The General's understudy was on, so Joseph Smith was played by a lady in Joseph Smith American Moses.
  • The Mission President's long, long silence after the Ugandans finish their play. Hilarious.
  • The orchestration and the orchestra, conducted by Per Engström. Top notch! There are many new, fun little details in the orhcestrations (and the variation in the volume is a welcome change after seeing and hearing the 120-dB-at-all-times Swedish production).

Things I didn't enjoy:

  • The sets and the video projections. To my tastes, the sets by Stefen Aarfing are a bit too sparse and sleek, and together with the naivistic video projections, they create an odd combo. 
  • Carsten Svendsen's Cunningham is too clean-cut. By looks alone, were it not for the glasses, you could mistake him for Price.
  • Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. They have a really impressive-looking laser show on a dark stage that almost makes the scene feel scary for real – but that's hardly the point.
  • Nabulungi is not happy after her babtism. I think it's way funnier if they, uh, reach the climax of being babtized together.
  • Cutting Nabulungi's sad Hasa Diga Eebowai reprise.

So, plenty of good and some confusion. In the end, I think the problem is not in the details – it's that the overall tone of the production feels a little bit too realistic for my tastes.

The direction of this production is more drama-like than usually. Both Price and especially Cunningham feel really easily relatable, the stereotypical aspects of both leads and the Ugandans are somewhat toned down and certain serious moments are more serious than ever. That, in turn, makes the moments of bad taste seem ever worse and the underlying severity of the whole story feel a bit too real. While it's nice they're trying something new with the material, I'm afraid that for me, it's not really working.

A fellow blogger has a good point when they say this production hasn't quite found the right balance in between originality and the original story. Check out their analysis. I agree with them, I think some scenes have a slight reinventing-the-wheel vibe going on.

This is exemplified by the scene where the General shoves the titular book up Price's behind. They tear his pants down, lube the book and make it exceedingly clear what is going to happen next. It's certainly daring and shocking to show it, but when you stage the scene like that, the reveal of the x-ray is not as suprising and therefore doesn't elicit such a huge response.


Ultimately, I'd like to quote The Simpsons: still funny, but not ha-ha funny. 

This production of The Book of Mormon is entertaining and every aspect of it is professionally done, but somehow, it's not quite the a-laugh-a-minute musical I know and enjoy. I've seen The Book of Mormon in all Scandinavian countries now, and in Sweden and Norway, the audience literally screamed with laughter. Here, the audience reactions were more subdued. Just like the production itself.

Glad I saw it once, but wouldn't necessarily go for seconds.

Photos by Miklos Szabo.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Prince of Egypt, Fredericia Teater

Please note: Fredericia Teater invited me to see their production of The Prince of Egypt for free.

I would have wanted to love this musical.

Dreamworks' 1998 animated movie The Prince of Egypt is one of my top favourite animations, even top favourite movies, of all time. It retells the Biblical story of Moses, combining intense music with beautiful visuals to such an effect I cannot watch it without crying.

So, hearing the world premiere of a musical based on the movie was going to take place in Fredericia Teater, Denmark (the very same theatre that brought us that amazing production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), as an American/Danish co-production – well, you try not getting excited. I attended the opening night last Friday.

I would have loved to like it, but I have to be honest. It was a complete mess.


The story of the Dreamworks picture (directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, screenplay by Philip LaZebnik and Nicholas Meyer, songs by Stephen Schwartz and score by Hans Zimmer) is based on the Book of Exodus and can be summarised in a couple of short sentences: Moses and Ramses are brothers. God gives Moses a difficult task. The brothers turn into enemies.

The movie starts off with the following disclaimer: While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.

The new musical is written LaZebnik too, but instead of respectfully expanding upon the movie while keeping in mind the story's Abrahamic origins, it serves us an unfocused, childish jumble of new characters, scenes, and motivations. The subtlety, beauty and indeed integrity of the original film is thrown out of the window. Instead, we get less-than-memorable new tunes from Schwartz, cringeworthy jokes and an ending so naïve and sappy it puts all Disney fairytales to shame.

Let me walk you through this.


The first act is not without its problems, but, in the grand scheme of things, it's quite serviceable. You have baby Moses in the basket on the river, Moses and Ramses growing up together, their father the Pharaoh raising his boys with an iron fist and insisting that crown prince Ramses shall not be the weak link to break the chain of their mighty dynasty. You have Moses killing a guard, running away to the desert and meeting his destiny.

It's not perfect but leaves you curious for the second act – which is where all hope is lost.

Where shall I start? Should I first tell you about the comic relief-y song about slavery, or maybe the evil high priest who keeps pressuring Ramses into making bad decisions? Or about Moses's first miracle being, instead of his staff turning into a snake, him stumbling into the Nile and accidentally turning the water into blood? Or how, in the end, Moses and Ramses make amends and the force ghost of their father the Pharaoh comes back to bless their brotherly union?

I am serious with this.

Some more details before delving into further analysis. Tzipporah tells Moses and Ramses she is not going to dance for them, while sexily dancing. Moses doesn't help Tzipporah escape, he barely lets her out of her chains so she can dance better. Moses only stops the guard beating the slaves when he starts hitting his sister Miriam too. Moses and Tzipporah flirt while watching sheep mating. Ramses and Moses make sexist jokes about their wives. Moses visits his ailing adoptive mother, who scolds him about sending the plagues upon Egypt. The burning bush scene lasts for about 30 seconds. The ghost of the Pharaoh teaches Moses that sometimes you just have to kill a bunch of babies to make things work.

Besides the complete lack of focus, the musical has a really vague, disappointing relationship with God, morality and the supernatural.

No matter whether you're a believer or not, f you're adapting the story of Moses, you have to accept that God is going to be one of your major characters. Or so you would think. Here, blink and you miss the burning bush – it doesn't get its own scene, it's seriously a sidetrack in the first act finale – and even the miracles Moses performs are glanced over. All the moral lessons are heavy-handed, and instead of Ramses making his own bad decisions, a moustache-twirling high priest keeps pulling the strings and promptly gets killed off for his evil deeds.

I understand turning a 90-minute-movie into a musical requires changing things and adding new material, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why all subtlety, respect and trust in the audience's capability to think for themselves has to be lost in the process. In the musical, they would have had a fantastic chance of exploring things like Ramses coming to terms with his own mortality (all his life, he's been told he's a living god, but then his brother lines up with a deity more powerful than him) or, say, the relationship in between Moses and his biological siblings.

But what do we get?

Force ghost Pharaoh and the power of love, that's what.


Fredericia Teater's production, directed by Scott Schwartz, has its bright moments – above all else, Sean Cheesman's innovative, beautiful choreography and the vocals of leading man Diluckshan Jeyaratnam.

Cheesman's choreography and the talented dancers are the true stars of the show, I only wish there was even more space for dance. The dancers form the river, the horses and chariots, the desert sand, the burning bush... There are also some more traditional but nevertheless impressive dance breaks. Through Heaven's Eyes is absolutely wild.

When it comes to the actors' performances, besides admiring Jeyaratnam's vocal chops, I was entertained by Mads M. Nielsen's performance as Pharaoh Seti. He chews the scenery, shouts and yells and looms around, it's all rather hammy and very amusing. For the most part, though, the performances felt rather one-note to me. Maybe that's because the characters are written as such, or maybe I'm just not the biggest fan of Scott Schwartz's style of directing, seeing I wasn't too hot on his Hunchback, either.

The visuals are hit-and-miss. The minimalistic sets by Kevin Depinet and the digital scenography by Jakob Bønsdorff Eriksen are pretty. The costume design by the Tony-winning designer Ann Hould-Ward, however, looks cheap and weird and honestly ugly, not quite modern but definitively not period either.

The physical production would be all right, though, were it not for the mess of a script and lackluster songs. You cannot mask such fundamental problems, no matter how high your production values are.


How I wish this musical would have been worth seeing.

The Prince of Egypt is a gorgeous movie. The good thing is that no matter what the musical is like, no one's going to take that away from me, I can still enjoy the film whenever I want to. But I know how eagerly the musical fandom has been looking forward to the musical adaptation, and I think it's a huge shame this is how it turned out to be.

I suppose they're still testing the musical out in Denmark and, hopefully, are making changes to it before trying to produce it anywhere else. They have to do a lot, a lot, to make this work, but I wish they'll go to the trouble.

Both the movie and the age-old story of Moses deserve a way better musical adaptation.

Photos by Søren Malmose.
Also read The San Francisco Chronicle's review of the Californian run of this international production – not much was fixed in between that and the Danish run, it seems like.

P.S. About the songs from the original movie: they're still absolutely gorgeous, even if all that remains of Playing with the Big Boys is the intro and The Plagues has been combined with another, inferior tune. The former I could forgive, but the latter... If you've ever heard the song, I'm sure you understand why I cannot.
P.P.S. The crossing of the Red Sea was done by splitting the orchestra stalls in two. Sorta impressive.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Early 2018 Recap

I'm still alive!

From the first days of 2018, I've been really busy with many new projects (first and foremost the musical podcast I co-host, listen to our playlist of interviews in English here), so though I've missed writing, I haven't had enough time to blog in the past months.

I have, however, had time for theatre – so here are three mini-sized reviews of productions I've seen as of late.


A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Oscarsteatern


Sara Jangfeldt and Andreas T Olsson. Photo by Mats Bäcker.

First, a macabre little romp to get this year going!

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder tells the story of a man who finds out he's a distant relative of a rich aristocratic family. Soon, he figures out that the only way he's ever going to inherit the family fortune is to murder his newfound relatives in increasingly imaginative ways...

Henrik Dorsin, who plays the D'Ysquith family (all the relatives meeting their end, that is), is advertised as the big star of the newest Swedish production. He is funny in his multitude of roles – but my personal favourites are Andreas T Olsson and Sara Jangfeldt as the murderous gentleman Monty Navarro and his feisty sweetheart Sibella. You know how you sometimes take a liking to an actor immediately, how your gaze is drawn to them and just watching them onstage makes you happy? Both Olsson and Jangfeldt had that effect on me.

I have to mention that I'm not too enamored by the portrayal of women in this musical. The cheerfully self-centered and calculating Sibella is fun, but her counterpart Phoebe, who's sweet and kind and only wants to marry for love... yawn.

Overall, though, I like the characters and the story. The tunes are not especially catchy, but the lyrics are witty, and many scenes made me laugh out loud.

Sometimes, a light-hearted tale of murder is just what you need. A fun, yet not all that memorable experience.


Godspell, Tampereen Työväen Teatteri

Please note: I was invited to see this production for free because we made a podcast episode partially about it.

In the middle, Sonja Pajunoja as Jesus. Photo by Kari Sunnari.

I knew nothing of Godspell beforehand except for that it's composed by Stephen Schwartz and about Jesus. Turns out, it's a full-blown concept musical based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Parables of Jesus and praise of God via vaudeville-ish song and dance numbers.

Man, the 70s gave us some pretty odd musicals.

It took me a while to warm up to this. To me, the concept feels like a Christian youth club on steroids – Christianity is cool, y'all!! For someone like me, who's always felt averse of organized religion, it felt a bit too revival-meeting-like to have all that energetic gospel with hardly any criticism mixed in. Or maybe it's just too American for my tastes, praising God out in the open like that. In Finland, religion is generally a much more private matter.

But as the show went on, I did warm up to it. Sonja Pajunoja is a charismatic Jesus, kind and loving yet firm when the situation calls for it. The whole ensemble, from Tampere University of Applied Science's Music Academy, is bursting with talent and energy. Not to mention the super catchy music.

So, Godspell. A little awkward, but in a really cheerful way.


Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert, Åbo Svenska Teater

Please note: I was invited to see this production for free because we made a podcast episode partially about it.


Listen to Alexander Lycke sing Gethsemane.

Godspell might have been a bit too much for me, but for my tastes, Jesus Christ Superstar has just the right mix of religious themes and cynicism. It is one of my top five favourite musicals. The last time we had it in Finland, I saw it eight times in ten weeks and it was a cathartic experience every time.

I haven't seen JCS since those eight times... until this March, that is. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a touring concert production, performed by the Swedish rock band Astrakhan, helmed by Alexander Lycke as Jesus and featuring Mats Levén as Judas.

I just read an interesting analysis on Jesus Christ Superstar by a fellow blogger. It discusses how JCS feels stuck in the 90s because composer Andrew Lloyd Webber uses his veto power to stop major productions reinventing the material in any substantial way. Am I glad I live north enough that ALW doesn't seem to care what's going on here!

This concert had many of the elements the productions criticized in the analysis don't – namely, truely unique rock/progressive/whatever-you'd-call-that arrangements (here's how Astrakhan defines its music: "With love for hardrock and hatred of the genres conventions and standardization") and impressive, improvised solos (a full-blown drum solo in JCS, how about that). The production had a rather simple rock concert aesthetic with some striking projections, and despite being a concert first and a musical second, the story still snuck up on you.

Fully staged productions of JCS are their own thing, but when it comes to concert editions, this was as good as it gets. It's like the music was meant to be played like this, with a small band and a loud volume. It was mesmerizing.

Some of the news outlets that covered the concert mentioned that it could become an Easter tradition. I truely hope so. I would love to experience this again.

P.S. Listen to our podcast interview (in English) with the leads of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Teatteri, keskustelu

(In Finnish this time – in short, I'm still alive! Maybe I'll pick up posting in English again soon, too.)

Tervehdys, ystävät. Elän.

Elän, vaikka olenkin kovasti kiireinen. Hetkellisesti liian kiireinen bloggaamaan – mutta onneksi sentään jostain löytyy aina sopiva puolituntinen mesota Twitterissä. Kopioin tähän talteen tviittiketjuni maaliskuun alusta, ettei se iäksi katoa muun Twitter-metelöintini alle.

Sivuan ketjussa syytä alkuvuoden kiireisiini (Musikaalimatkassa-podcastia pääsee kuuntelemaan täällä), mutta ennen kaikkea nämä neljätoista tviittiä tiivistävät mielestäni hyvin muutamia asioita, joita olen jo pidempään pohtinut teatteriin, mediaan, viestintään ja yhteisöön liittyen.

1. Tanskassa on avattu uusi, koti- ja ulkomaisiin teatteriuutisiin keskittyvä verkkomedia. Sydämestäni toivon hankkeelle pitkää ikää, vuolaita jakoja ja ylitsepursuavia klikkauksia.

Tässä ketjussa hieman havaintojani aiheista #teatteri ja (pien)media.
2. Toki tuossa on kyse eri skaalan operaatiosta kuin omani (taustalla pr-toimisto), mutta silti – onnea matkaan.
Ainakin Suomen leveysasteilla teatteriaiheisen pienmedian pinnalla pitäminen vaatii nimittäin hurjasti työtä ja vaivaa. Toivottavasti tanskalaisten savotta on helpompi!

3. Olen pitkän linjan bloggari, mutta ykkösesimerkkinä käytän @Musikaalimatka-podcastia, jonka ydintiimistä muodostan 50 %.

Seuraava voi kuulostaa katkeralta avautumiselta ja osittain onkin sitä, mutta: että on ollut ja on yhä vaikeaa voittaa alan toimijoita puolellemme.

4. On toki monia ihania teattereita ja niissä työskenteleviä ihmisiä, jotka ovat välittäneet sanaa meistä sisäisesti ja ulkoisesti. Huikean suuri superkiitos meiltä heille.

Mutta vähintään yhtä suuri on se joukko, joka ei ole reagoinut viesteihimme. Olemme pyytäneet teattereita...
5. ...jakamaan podcastiamme henkilökunnalleen ja katsojilleen ajatuksella, että pyrimme tekemään jotakin uutta ja kivaa koko Suomen teatterikansalle.

Haluamme luoda yhteisön, jossa teatterista voidaan puhua ja innostua yhdessä, tylsät ammattilaiset vs. harrastajat -jaot unohtaen.

6. Yhteisöä ei synny, jolleivät ihmiset saa meistä tietää. Henkilökohtaisilla kontakteilla pääsee vain hyvään alkuun.

Toivoimme siis, että teatterit voisivat solidaarisesti ojentaa meille kätensä ja jakaa podcast-linkkiä somessa. Heillähän niitä katsojia ja tekijöitä on.

7. Harmillisen usein meistä vaikuttaa kuitenkin siltä, että asiamme ei teattereita kiinnosta, jollemme käsittele niiden omaa ohjelmistoa laajasti – ja positiivisesti.

On tietenkin jokaisen toimijan oikeus olla meitä jakamatta. Jos sisältömme ei innosta, meidän on se hyväksyttävä.
 

8. Mutta on rankkaa tehdä – vaikka itse sanonkin – pieteetillä erittäin hyvää sisältöä ja samalla taistella joka kuuntelusta.

Harmi, miten harva teatteri tuntuu kokevan, että omaa some-kilpeään voisi kiillottaa myös jakamalla naapuria kehuvan tai alaa yleisesti käsittelevän jutun.

9. Ehkäpä pointtini on tiivistettynä tämä: miten paljon enemmän ja parempaa teatterikeskustelua Suomessa voitaisiin käydä, jos teatterit mahdollistaisivat sitä aktiivisemmin?

10. Loppuun vielä kokoelma hajanaisempia ajatuksia.

Ruotsissa on oma koko maan kattava musikaalipienmedia MusikalNet. Sisältö on journalistisesti hädin tuskin kelvollista, mutta kyllä tuolla uutisnälkä talttuu. Nostan hattua tekijöiden ahkeruudelle.

11. Kotimaan puolelta olen miettinyt, kuinka kävi @norsunluufi-kokeilun. Tavoite oli todella arvokas – yhdistää journalistit, bloggarit ja taiteilijat samaan keskusteluun – mutta sisältö jäi mielestäni liian korkealle yläpilviin ja kuivui sitten kasaan.

Sääli.

12. Itse olen kuusi vuotta pyörittänyt suomalaisen musikaalin ilosanomaa jakavaa Fuck Yeah, Finnish Musical Theatre! -blogia päivitys päivässä -tahtia.

Kaikkeen ei yksi ihminen repeä, tänä keväänä täytyy hidastaa. Mutta on siellä melkein 3
500 kuvaa silti.
13. Yhä jaksan lapsekkaasti uskoa, että täällä Suomessakin olisi tilausta uudenlaiselle, hyvin tehdylle teatterimedialle – ja ettei yksi podcast täytä koko tarvetta.

Toivon, että joku vielä keksii taikatempun, jolla potentiaalinen yleisö ja sisältö saadaan kohtaamaan toisensa.

14. Olisi hienoa saada Suomeen enemmän koko alan kattavaa teatterikeskustelua. Ei mitään masennuspuhetta kritiikin kriisistä, vaan uusia tapoja välittää tietoa ja jutella koetusta yhdessä! 
Katsotaan ja otetaan oppia siitä, miten tanskalaiset uudessa hankkeessaan menestyvät.

Ketjusta lähti Twitterissä käyntiin hirveän hyvä keskustelu, jossa pohdittiin laajemmin teatterien näkymistä sosiaalisessa mediassa. Itse teatterialalla viestintää tehneenä tiedän, että luonteva some-oleminen ei ole teatterille helppoa – mutta toisaalta katsojan, fanin ja myös podcast-juontajan näkökulmasta on usein turhauttavaa, miten pieneltä ja hajanaiselta suomalaisten teattereiden ja teatterinystävien yhteisö sosiaalisessa mediassa näyttää.

Uskon, että ainekset suurempaan, tiiviimpään yhteisöön ovat kyllä olemassa.

Minusta tuntuu nimittäin, että monilla olisi halua jakaa omia ajatuksiaan ja tunteitaan rakkaasta teatteriharrastuksesta (tai ammatista, tai elämäntavasta), mutta jokin umpisuomalainen häpeän tunne rajoittaa oma-aloitteista avautumista. Eihän tässä mitään ammattikriitikkoja olla, mitä väliä minun mielipiteelläni on, ja onhan se kuitenkin aika kummallista fanittaa teatteria tai muutenkaan ilakoida aiheella... Mutta jos joku nyhtää sopivasti, tulpan voi saada auki ja teatterikeskustelun käyntiin.

Toivoa antoi esimerkiksi taannoinen Musikaalimatkassa-podcastin tilillä aloittamamme Twitter-ketju, jossa ihmiset jakoivat hyviä teatterimuistojaan. Aivan ihania tarinoita, jotka olisivat ilman keskustelun aloittanutta kysymystä jääneet kertomatta.

Voi olla, että yhtä, kaikenkattavaa taikatemppua tiivimmän teatteriyhteisön luomiseksi sosiaaliseen mediaan ei ole olemassakaan. Mutta ehkä yhteen hiileen puhaltamalla suomalainen teatterimaailma voisi nostaa kotimaista teatterikeskustelua ainakin hieman aktiivisemmalle, helpommin lähestyttävälle tasolle – ja samalla ehkä hiukan madaltaa teatterin kynnystä. Ei liene keneltäkään pois, jos välillä muistaa vaikka kehua naapuria tai tosissaan kysellä ja kuunnella katsojien fiiliksiä.

Toivottavasti pikaisiin blogipalaamisiin!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Jekyll and Hyde: A Specimen

I'm on a vacation in Edinburgh right now. I wasn't planning on seeing any theatre here, but of course, this is Robert Louis Stevenson's home town - my old friends Jekyll and Hyde were bound to find me, even if I didn’t go out of my way looking for them.

I stumbled across Rough Cut Robin Productions' play Jekyll and Hyde: A Specimen, playing in the Scottish Storytelling Centre. And am I glad I did!

Hyde and Jekyll ready to have fun!

Jekyll and Hyde: A Specimen is an one-act play written by Donald Smith. It features actors Robbie Gordon and Gavin Paul in all the roles: the former as Jekyll and McKey (a new character that combines Lanyon and Carew from Stevenson's novella), the latter as Hyde and Utterson.

The play is set in modern-ish-day Edinburgh (I say modern-ish because they still write letters by hand) but feels very true to Stevenson's original story. We see young talented scientist Henry Jekyll testing a new drug on himself in the hopes of improving his own quality of life and earning fame and fortune. Instead, though, the experiment sets Jekyll's repressed urges free in the form of Edward Hyde. In Hyde's guise, Jekyll can do whatever he wants. Soon, drinks and parties are not enough excitement for Jekyll/Hyde anymore, and others are also becoming suspicious of the duo's secret...

This play has different actors playing Jekyll and Hyde. When I heard of a musical adaptation with similar casting, I thought literally splitting the leading role in two is a bad idea - but no, at least here, it actually works very well. Hyde is the physical embodiment of the voice in Jekyll's head. He's been there all the time, but the drug Jekyll tests on himself amplifies him. To others, Hyde appears coarse and cruel, but towards Jekyll, he's all nice and cheerful, almost bubbly: let's party, let's go and have fun! When Hyde takes the wheel, a good time is had by the both of them, so Jekyll becomes addicted to listening to Hyde fast.

The first half the play deals with Jekyll making the drug and setting Hyde free, while the second half focuses on Utterson trying to figure out how and why Jekyll and Hyde are connected. In this version, instead of being his lawyer and good friend, Utterson works at a research centre that hires Jekyll in the beginning of the show. Concerned for the centre's reputation, he sets out to find out what troublemaker Edward Hyde has to do with bright scientist Henry Jekyll. While Utterson tries to work the mystery out, Hyde becomes fed up with Jekyll's attempts at shutting him down and finally decides he'll do better all by himself, without Jekyll...

I saw the show only once (could've gone for seconds right away, but the performance I saw was the last one of the run) and holding back a coughing fit messed with my concentration a little (damn this cold), so some details are lost on me already. But as a whole, the story is very faithful to Stevenson's original story... unlike, say, certain musical adaptations. It was very nice seeing an adaptation like this live.

Like the book, the play is short, meaning there is no need to stuff it with romantic sideplots or other superfluous action. Like the book, it's also no black-and-white good/evil thing but a bit more complicated than that. It deals with exploring selfish desires, acting upon them and letting an addiction consume you. The actors do very convincing job jumping from one role to another - never thought I'd see the same person play Hyde and Utterson in the same performance! I especially liked Jekyll and Hyde's scenes together, how they made Hyde's influence on Jekyll and Jekyll's addiction to acting upon Hyde's whims very tangible.

So thank you, gods of theatre, for guiding my path past the Scottish Storytelling Centre and allowing me to see the poster in the window.

Happy upcoming 2018 to all!

Photo from Rough Cut Robin Productions' Facebook page.

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.


Enjolras

  • 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.