Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where They Play Jazz

I just saw a version of Chicago in Tampere with a friend of mine who also loves musical theatre.

I'm a rational person and usually think things through with sense and order. I love paying attention to differences between productions and can watch the same show many times just to see all the details.
My friend, Sara, is quite different. She lives with the show, laughs and cries. If the show is good, it's easy for her to forget everything going on around her and just focus on feeling for the characters. I'm also about a dozen times more critical than Sara. We both saw the current West End Grease. I thought it was bad with its too small stage, not-so-ambitious sets and costumes, boring and too loud musical arrangements and weird acting choices. But Sara thought the music was groovy and the feeling good and enjoyed the show.

So, when we left the theatre playing Chicago and her first words were "it let a lot to hope for"... It certainly was not just me who thought there was something wrong with the show.

Part of my mood might have to do with the fact that when I had walked halfway to the train station in the morning I realised I had forgotten my aspirin at home. Of course I got a headache in the theatre. But it was not really bad, luckily. I was very much able to focus on the show. So, let's see...

The show started weirdly. If you've ever seen Chicago on Broadway – and I suppose this goes for West End, too? – you know it begins with one of the dancers walking to the centre of the stage and telling the audience they're about to see a show about all the things dear to us, like cheating, murder etc.
But here the show began with the overture. During it the actors played a little scene of how Velma murdered her sister. It was followed by a man welcoming the audience, saying the lines the show usually begins with and starting to sing All That Jazz.

I felt very confused at this point.

Usually I'm all for non-replica productions. The really different Finnish Cats started my interest in musical theatre, Finnish Mary Poppins worked greatly as a non-replica and Wicked wasn't bad, neither. And even if the adaptation doesn't quite work I still appreciate the director trying something different and showing their own vision. But messing with the script of the show from the first minute? I think this form of adaptating might be a little bit too liberal for me...

To my relief Velma came in to do the rest of the song. However, I thought there wasn't something quite right with her. I don't like critiquing people like this, but I feel this review won't be quite complete if I leave this unsaid. In my opinion, Velma is supposed to be sexy, sassy and charismatic. Even if she's not quite a teenager anymore, she's supposed to be a believable, energetic cabaret dancer.
Unfortunately Sari Siikander's Velma wasn't all of these things. This is of course just my opinion, but I just didn't feel the character through Siikander's performance, I don't think she fit the part. The horrible red hairstyle and the little bit too uncomfortably revealing and tight costumes didn't really help, looks-wise... Putting that aside, she had an alright voice, even if her dancing might had left something to hope for.

But then again, I thought Eriikka Väliahde's Roxie was great and had a lovely voice, as did Billy Flynn – whoever it might have been that played the role today since there are three opinions in the cast list and I had hard time spotting any "in the roles tonight" signs. Mama Morton and Amos weren't bad, neither.

But what I wonder the most about the casting is the addition of an MC. He started the show with his rendition of All That Jazz and he, in his clown type makeup and suit, kept popping up in various places in the show. He did all the announcements, acted as Billy Flynn's and Mama Morton's assistant and played the doctor in the beginning of the second act. He also sung more parts of other characters' songs, like the beginning of I Can't Do It Alone. It was a bit of a weird choice to me, but I think I can see what they were trying to achieve and appreciate them for that.

That wasn't the only change, though. There were other weird alternations around.

Firstly, Billy's speech about what kinds of love he cares about had been modified: the punchline about physical love not being so bad either had been left out. All That Jazz also seemed different to me: the murder scene had been somehow expanded and some lines, like Roxie's "I gotta pee", had been left out. Mama Morton's supposed lesbianism wasn't mentioned once: the "let them in, butch" line was out, for example. The mormon refrence in Cell Block Tango was cut, too.
Secondly, Mary Sunshine really was a woman. This annoyed me. I liked the character on Broadway with that gorgeous falsetto and the surprising scene in the end where he gets unmasked. But now A Little Bit of Good somewhat lost its point, even though they had inserted a dance scene featuring "the boys of the press club."
Thirdly, there wasn't any performance to Hunyak's hanging. She stood on the orchestra stand with a projection of a noose, the lights went off and it was announced she was hanged.
Fourthly, the girls didn't dance their Hot Honey Rag in the end. The scene dissolved straight from the duet part of Nowadays to the reprise of All That Jazz.

The first one of these examples could still be accepted as mistakes in the translation – if you suspend your disbelief for a bit. But the latter things make me think... If you don't have the talents necessary to do this musical, like a male singer with a good falsetto or two ladies who are able to both sing, act and dance their garters off, are you sure Chicago is the right choice for you? I really don't like the thought of making cuts because the cast isn't able to perform the show correctly. In a high school play it's okay, but with professional theatre...

The director Tiina Puumalainen's vision of this musical was another thing that didn't really make me dance with joy. Mostly because it seemed like the director of Chicago the movie's vision transformed on stage rather than her own.

During When You're Good to Mama on I realised what was going on. When I noticed they had swipped The Cell Block Tango's and Mama's song's places just like they do on the movie, and when Mama entered in a glamorous long dress accompanied by handsome men I sighed a little... It seems the director of this version loves the movie's concept where every song happens in Roxie's imagination. She tried to bring the fantasy aspect on stage, too, rather than reaching the show from the vaudeville show point of view like on Broadway.
But, in my opinion, the movie kept showing a bit too strongly in this production.

In some ways, trying to be like the movie improved the show. The sets, for example, were definitely more innovative and good-looking than their pretty much non-existant Broadway counterparts. The Cell Block Tango looked fantastic with cells in three levels and pole dancers inside them.

But on the downside... When they did They Both Reached For the Gun as a replica of the movie scene, with Roxie's really exaggerated doll-like look and a puppet stage with the journalists as marionettes – all dressed in period costumes – I just wanted to grunt. I don't love replica productions, but I'd surely rather see a replica than something trying to replicate a different form or art. Transitions from silver screen to stage don't always work that prettily! Instead, they often feel quite lazy.

A lot of the costumes reminded me strongly of the movie. Just the idea of them ripping their prison clothing off to reveal glamorous glittering costumes... Roxie's little silver dress for the song Roxie and her blue trial dress were straight from the movie. The idea of having something red in all the murderesses' costumes, except for Hunyak, seemed very movie-inspired. All He Cares About Is Love had showgirls in pink feathery costumes. The girl's white costumes and wall of light bulbs in the back of them in the finale... If they could've made it possible to make the light bulbs flash the text "Roxie and Velma" I've no doubt they would've done it.

To be fair, though, this version of Chicago had its fair share of great moments.

The Finnish Roxie was a great singer, and her speech in the beginning of the song Roxie was just hilarious - you should've seen her demonstrating Amos making love to her... I also loved the trial, especially Billy Flynn cheering the jury to make waves and whoops and his simply hilarious last scene where he left the stage dancing along the exit music and showing victory signs with both his hands.
I Can't Do It Alone, with Velma dancing along a shadow projection of her sister, was really clever.
The dancers weren't bad, neither. My only complaint with them is that there seemed to be a little too few of them and the stage seemed a bit empty at some points. But the Cell Block Tango scene was easily the greatest-looking scene of the show and it really showed off the cast's talents.
But somehow this musical left me feeling left down.

Maybe it's to do with the musical arrangements – Sara deemed the music foggy and some parts left me desiring more, too. When You're Good to Mama seemed way too clean, for example – or maybe with the too striking recemblance to the movie, but this version of Chicago didn't leave me feeling happy or humming the tunes, like the movie and the Broadway version did.

Luckily it's only three weeks left before I'll see a Finnish version of Les Misérables, my favourite musical.
If it's good it'll help me to forget a dozen of bad adaptations.
If it's bad it's my faith in Finnish theatres and possibly in humanity will get crushed.
No pressure, Åbo Svenska Teater! No pressure!

Pictures by Petri Kovalainen / Tampereen Työväen Teatteri.

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