Saturday, August 28, 2010

Critics Gonna Criticize

I went to see the Finnish version of Wicked two days ago and had lots of fun. The music was, as usual, very grand and catchy with big orchestrations and talented singers, and the visuals amazed me more than once. Not a boring moment!

Today Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's biggest newspaper, released their critic Suna Vuori's review of the show.

As I guessed when picking the paper from the mailbox, the critique hardly found anything good with the show.
The story is a "quickly forgettable mess", the themes of the piece are "the most ordinary", the music is "unmoving and disposable", the dancing is "fast food, self-evident filler", the political references "slip to the state of incomprehensibleness", the moral is "unclear from the beginning", there are "dead moments" all along the show and even the characters lose all their charm during second act. At least, and as her only positive words, Vuori mentions how the leading ladies did a great job and how the visuals save some of the dead scenes.
In her comment she adds that it's odd how Elphaba doesn't mourn and Nessa's death and how even her 11 years old kid got bored in the theatre.

This review made my blood pressure go up by several notches.
Sure! The story of Wicked might not be on the same level as the classics like Jesus Christ Superstar or Les Misérables!
Sure! The music of Wicked doesn't quite live up to Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd!
Sure! The dancing is worse than in freaking Swan Lake!
But seriously, I hope there's never enough cynicism and hate towards life in me to become a newspaper critic.

Firstly, Wicked's target group is teenage girls, not middle aged women. I went to the premiere with my friend, who, just like me, happens to be a 17 years old girl. She had never seen the show or heard the songs before. Let's see what she has to say about the show:
"The singers had strong and emotionally rich voices - especially Elphaba's voice was lovely. There was great dancing with smooth movements, beautiful costumes and sets and epic music! Also, I thought the story wasn't predictable. As a whole, the show inspired me!"

Secondly, let's take a closer look at Vuori's opinions and try to anwer to them, one by one.

The story was a quickly forgettable mess.
I admit I can see Vuori's point here, even though I don't compeletly agree. Especially considering The Wizard of Oz isn't a tale every kid is familiar with in Finland, the story can seem a bit difficult to Finns. As I've noticed before, the whole Animal rights subplot seemed rushed to me.
Despite that, I really wouldn't claim the story forgettable! Am I wrong, or aren't there thousands of people who have indentified with Elphaba and found her story touching?

The themes of the piece are the most ordinary.
As the themes, Vuori mentions good, evil, being different and friendship.
Let's think about some other classic pieces of musical theatre. West Side Story: being different. Sweeney Todd: evil. Les Misérables: good, evil. The Phantom of the Opera: being different. RENT: being different, friendship.
Yep. Wicked's themes seem to be the most ordinary. But if we start hating these themes we also have to start hating about every musical out there! In my opinion, this thought could be turned upside down: it's admirable how Wicked manages to be entertaining and feel fresh when tackling with such common - or actually, not common, but universal - issues.

The music is unmoving and disposable.
CD Universe all time sales rank for Wicked's original Broadway cast recording: #19. bestsellers rank: #60 in all music, #5 in Broadway Vocalists. bestsellers rank: #158 in all music, #2 in Musicals. sales rank: #40 in all music, #6 in soundtrack.
Maybe this tiny peek at the CD sales tell something about how unmoving and disposable people think the music is.
And as my own opinion, I can say Defying Gravity is one of the about four songs that have ever made me cry, and hearing Maria Ylipää's "The Wizard and I" live two days ago made shivers run down my spine. Maybe the music isn't all perfect, but I think it's wrong to claim it unmoving. In my opinion, it's packed with strong feelings!

The dancing is fast food, self-evident filler.
Both me and my friend missed Elphaba's entrance to the Ozdust Ballroom because we were enchanted by Fiyero's (Tuukka Leppänen) dancing.

The political references slip to the state of incomprehensibleness.
For this version of Wicked, I pretty much have to agree here. First, I feel so embarrassed that until reading Vuori's review I didn't realise the Finnish Wizard is meant to be a Stalin look-a-like (see a picture here) - now, when looking at the picture, it's so obvious!
But yes, if you look at "Wonderful" as Stalin singing about his wonderfulness, I can see you can get confused, offended and annoyed. I think the allegory between the Wizard and Stalin doesn't work that well. I don't know if I would put it as harshly as Vuori did, claiming "the director Hans Berndtsson's vision of history stuns me with its stupidity", though...
However, I think this will fly over the heads of a lot of the audience, at least the youngest part of it.

The moral is unclear from the beginning.
Granted, the Animals subplot could be more visible, but it's not the only part of the story's moral Vuori critiques. She also doesn't get "what moral is included into good's transformation to evil and evil's transformation to good". "Is the messy story's moral, perhaps, that people will transform into what others think they are", she questions. "Or that it's dangerous to get all you want?"
Let me tell you: yes, the moral of the story has to do with becoming what others think you are. You could argue that's the main point of the story, Elphaba becoming evil because everybody keeps going on about how wicked she is. Glad you got it, even though it seemed so unclear to you!

There are dead moments.
Where? I didn't notice any, I thought they were all well alive and kicking.

The characters lose all their charm during second act.
Vuori thinks "Elphaba's bitterness and isolation makes her boring and grumpy, while Glinda's character loses its shine and becomes a cardboard cutout". If so, it has to do with Baum's original book, since the second act brings the characters closer to the originals.
I think especially Glinda doesn't become boring: she shows she can be a strong leader and probably feels secretly sad for the rest of her life because of Elphaba's death and Fiyero's disappearance, even though she can never show that to anyone. I think that's far from cardboard! And as for Elphaba, she sure becomes angrier - but that's kind of the point of being a bad witch, huh?

And maybe the weird obsession about the shoes was Elphaba's way to mourn? Nessa is one of the people she mentions in No Good Deed, motivating her decision to stop trying to do good. I'm sure Elphaba did mourn her - but adding a scene with her crying about it wouldn't have added enough to the plot, so it was better left undone.

The people who comment on the theatre's homepage are backing me up with this: there are already many comments about the too strong and unfair "critiquefying" of Wicked.
It seems Finnish audiences love the show - too bad the newspaper managed to find a hater and paid for her to bring her hate to everybody's breakfast table.

Wicked isn't the deepest or the most thought-provoking show out there. But it's one of the sweetest eye and ear candies in the world of musical theatre, not completely without its share of touching moments! If you haven't swallowed a lemon whole before entering the theatre, I bet you'll have a really fun evening filled with songs you're going to hum along the whole next week!

See my long review of the show at this link. Pictures here from Helsingin Kaupunginteatteri's site.

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