Saturday, December 17, 2011

Two Quick Reviews

To decelerate this blog's descent into a full-blown manifestation of my monomania, I'm going to quickly review two shows I've seen recently that aren't about miserable people in 19th century France...
Cabaret and Striking 12, everybody!

Cabaret, Lahden kaupunginteatteri

I saw Cabaret some weeks ago with my mom and her friend.
My mom is not a theatre fan, and I hardly ever can get her to see anything with me. In retrospect, I wish I'd spend my energy trying to convince her to see something else than this - this production of Cabaret will hardly cure anyone from their dislike towards musicals.

My first problems were with the source material itself.
I wasn't familiar with the show or the movie beforehand, and a part of my reason of going to see it was that I wanted to get to know this musical classic. Well, I wasn't completely disappointed - the story is, mostly, interesting and has some very touching moments.
However, I didn't thoroughly enjoy the music. There are a couple of songs that don't really make sense. They come out of nowhere, have hardly anything to do with what is happening, and disappear with no mention of them afterwards. Maybe they were originally written for the movie, which I hear is really different from the stage show, and installed into the stage script afterwards? Other than that, I found the music a little bit too repetitive for my tastes, even though there are good tunes here and there. I also wish the music brought the story forward a little more effectively. As it is, it, in my opinion, uses a little too much time reprising what the dialogue scenes have already told us.

But how about the production, then?
Well... There are good parts. I somewhat enjoyed seeing Jorma Uotinen as the Emcee, and Ritva Sorvali and Tapio Aarre-Ahtio were quite heartbreaking as the older couple. The ensemble did mostly good job with the dance scenes.
But the main couple of the story, Maija Rissanen as Sally Bowles and Jussi Puhakka as Cliff... Sadly, they're one of the couples with the least amount of chemistry I've ever seen in any piece of theatre. I just didn't see anything between the two characters. Sure, they have their love songs and arguments, but, judging by their stage presence, they could've been old class mates as well. I didn't really get the feeling the two characters much cared for each other at any point - let alone being head over heels in love!

I wouldn't suggest seeing this from the few first rows, which is the mistake we did. First of all, the choreography can be quite risqué at times, so I can see some would feel awkward, being too close... But, for me, the problem was that it was hard appreciating the choreography as a whole, almost sitting onstage myself. I suppose from the middle of the auditorium you'd get a better picture of what's happening. I, thanks to my seat, failed to see the big picture.
The staging is mostly nice, but I got the feeling the stage was unnecessarily big. A big part of it was hardly utilized at all. For the final scene the huge, empty stage made a great, haunting impact, though!

In a nutshell, not a production I'd really recommend. It has some good parts, but it fails to reach the piece's - even though a little flawed in itself - full potential.

Striking 12, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri

It's actually surprisingly hard to describe Striking 12. It's one of the most unconventional musicals I've seen.
It's great.
I mean, how many times shows you've seen have begun with the actors and the audience singing Happy Birthday together to a member of the cast?

Striking 12 is a show with many layers.
The first layer is that there are three people - Samuel Harjanne, Petrus Kähkönen and Veera Railio - who are doing a show. They're singing, playing instruments, joking with each other, talking to the audience... The second layer is them, during their show, acting a story of a man who doesn't like the winter holiday season and is spending New Year's Eve alone. The third level is that the man starts reading The Little Match Girl, and then the events of that story are acted out for the audience, too.
It's a quite confusing thing to explain but, seeing it, it makes sense, and it's fun to follow the layers changing.
The show is both funny and touching, with a big amount of laugh-out loud moments but also a sweet message. The music is great all the way through. Especially the fact that the keyboards and drums are accompanied with a less traditional instrument, an electric violin, makes the show sound very interesting. Wonder if it's too late to ask Santa for the original cast recording?
Props for the translation, by the way! Given that every other Finnish musical translation seems to be a little cringe-worthy at some point, this one by Jukka Virtanen and Kristiina Drews felt surprisingly flowing, somehow. Really, good job.

It's not just the piece that's great, though. Each of the three performers does an amazing job, I really couldn't pick a favourite here even if I tried!
I admit I shot the biggest amount of I'm-judging-you type stares at Harjanne's general direction because he'll be playing Enjolras in ÅST for the show's final four weeks next winter (ha-ha! I could make this about Les Misérables after all!) - but, after seeing this show, I think us Les Mis fans don't have to worry about the casting change.

In short, one of the most enjoyable musicals I've seen this year (even though I can't say the holiday-positive theme of the piece would have cured me of my mild dislike towards Christmas). The auditorium was sadly empty yesterday, this'd deserve a person sitting in every seat. If you live anywhere near Helsinki, don't hesitate but go see this now, while you still can!

Cabaret photos: taken by Tarmo Valmela.
Striking 12 photos: taken by Ville Akseli Juurikkala.
Just for the record: when I saw Les Mis in London this summer, it begun with the second balcony belting Happy Birthday to some lucky fellow called John. I've never sung for an actor before, though!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What Have They Done?

 The person pictured has nothing to do with the upcoming review.

Last spring I received a fun invitation from my friend Sara and her mother Hilkka. Would I like to come along on a short trip - a quick flight to Malmö to see Malmö Opera's brand-new non-replica version of Les Misérables? Being the die-hard Mizzie I am, deciding whether to accept the offer took me no longer than belting out "24601"...
Yesterday it was finally the time to fly to Sweden to check out what our dear neighbours can do with the world's most popular musical.

I had read one review by a fellow Mizzie beforehand. I tried to keep everything said there out of my mind, but I'm afraid some of the thoughts were in the back of my head.
More importantly, as I'm certain everyone who's met me knows, my love for Åbo Svenska Teater's production of Les Mis knows no borders. The Malmö production even being in the same language than ÅST's Les Mis... It felt a bit like I was going to see an ice hockey game - the other team might be good, but my team has to be better. Silly, I know!

Despite all this, I'll try my best to remain as objective as I possibly can and avoid unnecessary comparisons to other productions.

First of all, keep in mind that Malmö's Les Mis is a true non-replica version. There's a lot of symbolism, the costumes and sets have been separated from the 19th century setting... I'll talk about this more later, just keep it in mind while reading.

I'll go through the actors first and then say a couple of words about the production. I'll start with my most negative remarks and work my way towards the highlights of the evening.

Sadly, the performance I liked the least was the star of the show himself, Dan Ekborg as Jean Valjean. His Valjean felt, to me, very unpleasant.
I won't try to claim his singing wasn't acceptable - the tone of his voice wasn't to my tastes, but he hit the notes well enough. The problems had to do with his acting. At first, his Valjean-is-a-criminal-hardened-by-the-prison approach intrigued me... But as the show progressed and I couldn't see the better person surfacing in him, I lost my good mood.

Ekborg explains his take of the character in an interview in the show's programme. He doesn't see Jean Valjean becoming fully good, and he for example thinks Valjean himself benefits the most, becoming the owner of the factory (or, as Ekborg puts it, a place of slavery). Apparently, this Valjean is not one to give money to the poor... His lack of charity is also visible in the performance - I don't think I've ever seen Valjean being quite so cold towards Fantine or treating Cosette like a responsibility like that... While the unique approach is, most certainly, very interesting, I'm afraid it'd be better left in the hands of some other actor than Ekborg. This performance just felt unpleasant to me.

Another character that really didn't grow on me was Enjolras. I'm not one to demand complete accuracy to Victor Hugo's novel (even though I do think it'd be nice!), and at first I thought Anders Gjønnes's Enjolras was simply a prime example of Umm?jolras - until he really lost it by the second act. The unremarkable but also unannoying waving the flag was replaced by pacing around, shouting orders and pacing and shouting some more. And you're supposed to believe these students are following this nervous wreck to their deaths?
As I said, I don't demand Brick-accuracy. I only want my Enjolrati to be strong leaders. But when you fail that...

Notable inhabitants of Hohumville were Cosette, Marius and Thénardier.

Apart from perhaps the most powerful rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables I have ever heard, Philip Jalmelid's Marius was rather uninteresting. There just wasn't too much character development or interesting detail to see there. Same goes with Cosette, Mathilda Ahnell - a pretty voice, but acting-wise she blended nicely to the sets. Sadly, even the chemistry in between Marius and Cosette was quite lacking. I mean, shaking hands? Really..? Their scenes didn't make me smile much, as they often do with other productions.

I've complained before that in ÅST Marius and Éponine have too much chemistry. In Malmö it went to the other extreme. Ida Högberg's Éponine was quite good, her On My Own excellent - and her interaction with Marius next to nonexistant. Marius holding her while he dies and speaking loving words to her to her was stretching it since they hardly seemed friends before that.

Thénardier, portrayed by Peter Harryson, can be summed up shortly: boring. I really disliked Matt Lucas as Thénardier because he only played the part for laughs... But he, at the very least, played it for something. Harryson wasn't funny, or vile, or anything really. He mostly just stood there and sung. Madame Thénardier, Evamaria Björk, then again, did a good job with the part and was way more energetic than the master of the house himself - she even helped him rob bodies in the sewers.

Karolin Funke as Fantine wasn't bad either. She sung I Dreamed a Dream quite nicely... But the direction of the production made it difficult to see the suffering woman in her. When it came to the point where Fantine starts selling herself, she didn't as much as open one button of her blouse. You couldn't see her descent having any physical effects on her, apart from losing her hair - and that made the character a lot less impactful.

The first true rays of sunshine is this cloud of mediocre were the child actors, Beata Ljunggren as little Cosette and Ivar Lodén Håkansson as Gavroche. The both sung excellently and acted with more energy than some of their grown-up co-stars... Kudos to them!

Sadly, I can't find any pictures of Grantaire.

To me, the second-biggest highlight of the whole performance was Glenn Daniel Nilsson as Grantaire. I was really interested in seeing his version of the character since he was Marius in ÅST last season and I really admired his performance in that role. I have to admit whenever he was onstage - as the foreman, sailor #1, second drunk from the left in Master of the House... My eyes were fixed on him.

But to Grantaire! As you may know, I have a soft spot for Enjolras/Grantaire interaction, and the production closest to my heart is lacking in that aspect. So, I was curious to see if anything was different here - and luckily Nilsson didn't disappoint. His Grantaire truely only had eyes for Enjolras. The director or the actor apparently agreed with what many of the fans already think about this character!
The Enjolras & Grantaire fan part of the audience - namely, me? - was rewarded, apart from Grantaire's obvious adoration, with a moment during Drink With Me: Grantaire grasped Enjolras's arm and pleaded him to "drick med mig", only to be pushed aside. Other than that, Grantaire refused to fight, drank a lot and was a loving big brother to Gavroche. He even caught the smallest revolutionary when he fell to his death - and died himself with Gavroche's body still in his arms. Definitely touching.

But the true star of the night, the performance deserving a standing ovation, was Fred Johanson's Javert. Sören, Earl, make way, my list of best Javerts ever just got longer! If Ekborg's interview showcases a very unique understanding of the character, Johanson's quotes tell that he's truely done his homework and studied Victor Hugo's novel. His Javert was the most book-accurate one I remember seeing.

Johanson's voice was a pleasure to listen to, deep and gorgeous. His Stars was a treat, and his Suicide is one of the few times I remember seeing the scene applauded - perfectly deservedly. I've never seen the broken man Javert becomes more clearly than last night.
If the Thénardiers weren't quite on the same level, this Valjean/Javert pair was even more uneven. If only Johanson's Javert could be seen with a better Jean Valjean... The combination would be mind-blowingly good!
From the Brick-accurate little smiles every now and then to the gorgeous low notes, I enjoyed every single second of Johanson's Javert. When he and Glenn Daniel Nilsson were onstage at the same time during the barricade scenes, I really didn't know who to watch!

Sadly, that wasn't enough to truely save the production. I left the theatre with an unpleasant feeling I've never associated with Les Mis before. It wasn't all the actors' fault - I think the production itself, directed by Ronny Danielsson, stopped the watcher from getting too deep into the events and from feeling too much for the characters with all its modern staging choices.

The most notable thing in this production, of course, was the non-period-accurate setting. The best way I can describe the production's general mood and look might be "Tim Burton's Les Misérables"... Visually, the show was very grand, and the colour scheme and dystopistic mood reminded me a bit of Burton's 2007 film Sweeney Todd. The colours were cold and dark, not really inviting even during the happiest of moments. The stage was huge - and, sadly, I got the feeling it had been a hard task, trying to find a way to really fill it somehow...
I'm unsure why the production was done like this. Why not period-accurate? Why cold, dark, uninviting? I can't answer, but got the feeling the answer may be closer to the lines of "let's do a modern Les Mis because, hey, modern! That's, like, a new idea, right?" than "I have a vision I want to show to the audience and I can only do it through a modern setting of this period piece"...

I loved Mikki Kunttu's lights, they were some of the best I've ever seen. The lighting was beautiful and used really cleverly at some points, for example the shade of the whole scene changing completely faster than you can blink your eye when a character died...
I also liked Annsofi Nyberg's costuming. Mostly, it looked great. I think that the biggest problem was putting all the students in similar outfits, tricoloured pants and red jackets. When Enjolras didn't really separate from the crowd acting-wise, everybody looking like him surely didn't help making him a recognisable figure... But other than that, the costumes were nice to look at.

The action scenes, The Runaway Cart and then the barricade, were a bit of a mess. The abstractness of the barricade made portraying shooting and fighting hard, and as a whole the production trusted the power of light, smoke and noise way too much, with the actors hardly bothering moving around the stage in action scenes. Some other confusing barricade-related bits were the students dying twice - rather awkward, jumping from the barricade to downstage like that! - and the burning French flag seen in Final Battle. Someone clearly missed the point, putting that there. The both sides of the battle fight for France, so who set the flag on fire? If only they had used the red revolutionary flag, then the idea might've worked!

The Finale had both good and bad moments. Only Fantine showed up to welcome Jean Valjean to heaven. This doesn't have to be a problem, since the necessity of Éponine's part can be debated - but since we still heard Éponine's voice but only saw Fantine, the effect was confusing. The good part was that Javert also had a part in the Do You Hear The People Sing reprise. Here in Nordic countries, our theatres understand where his character belongs! The Malmö Finale's end was quite perfect actually, because, unlike in ÅST, the Thénardiers weren't nowhere to be seen.

The show was heavily choreographed. The effect varied from stunning to awkward. Even though some scenes looked good, I missed the standard blocking a bit - with a tight coreography, there's no room for inprovised background action in ensemble scenes!

Finally, the orchestra. Personally, I'm a fan of the new orchestrations à la Live! 2010 or Dutch 2008, so this version, sounding more traditional with synthetizers and such, wasn't exactly to my tastes. The music still sounded great though, grander that I've heard it played before, with a big orchestra conducted by Mats Rondin.

I know I may appear overly negative here. After all, everybody sung well, and there clearly was a lot of effort put into the show. The part of my company who hadn't seen Les Mis before said she enjoyed the show, and I'm sure the production will find its fans. This has just been the two cents of an overly invested Mizzie who, for the first time, left a theatre after seeing Les Mis without smiling.
Maybe this is just boredom, seeing the ÅST production so often lately... I'll see it again in four days. If it turns out then I'm tired of it too, I shall update this entry to give Malmö an absolution.

Picture credits: the first photo is mine, the one with Cosette, Marius and Éponine as well as the one with Glenn Daniel Nilsson are from the production's programme, the rest are by Malin Arnesson from Malmö Opera's press photo page.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Guess what!

Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Misérables continues next winter, for a month at least.

To honor that extraordinary piece of news, enjoy this fine old-timey photograph of me with the aforementioned production's cast:

Real story about the pictured event to follow later.
I just had to get the happy news out of my system before even trying to fall asleep tonight.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fact File

Voikkuinen was sneaky enough to tag me with one of these eight facts things!

The rules:
1. Thank the person who gave you this tag - thaaaaaank youuuuu Voikkuinen!
2. Pass the tag to eight bloggers - you know what, I don't think so. I'm afraid I don't read too many blogs whose writers would care about this challenge.
3. Tell them about this tag - yeah.
4. Tell eight random things about yourself - now this is the fun part!

Okay! Go! Eight random MUSICAL things about Siiri - I want to have some order here, this is a musical blog after all!

1. If I were to work in a theatre - and I wish I will, one day - I think I'd rather work offstage than onstage.
I briefly wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, but that dream soon went the same way as my previous dreams of being a runner in the Olympics and selling yarn in a yarn shop. Though I admit I suffer from the feeling I bet every other musical fan recognises - that my life won't be really complete before I get to be a part the One Day More march in Les Mis.

2. Grease was the first musical I ever liked.
I was ten or eleven years old when I first saw it. My mother screamed to me that there's something fun on TV and I ran upstairs. She started taping the film from the point when Danny and Sandy meet each other again in the school sports event, and the first tape ran out of space in the middle - so I had about 5/6 of Grease on two separate VHS's (remember those wacky things?). I loved it beyond belief and could watch it twice the same day without getting bored in the least. Grease was also my first musical CD and the first DVD I owned.

3. Being such a huge musical fan as I am, I have an oddly small number of favourite actors and actresses.
I blame the fact that I've been an obsessive musical freak for less than three years. A year plus some being the runtime of an average Finnish musical, I haven't seen too many actors in more than one role so far. I don't want to name favourites based on one performance only.

4. Les Misérables is my favourite musical, I love it to bits and still cringe every time I have to watch through the horror of Gavroche dying, but it has made me cry only twice.
First time was by the end of the first time I ever saw the show, in West End. The reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing was too beautiful to hear - and not to cry! The second time was this summer in West End when the Overture begun. I don't know what hit me, but I started sobbing pretty grandiosely. I calmed down pretty quickly, though.

5. The Book of Mormon is the musical I'd most love to see at the moment.
Other ones I'd love to see live but haven't had the chance to, yet, are Notre Dame de Paris, Elisabeth, Sweeney Todd, Hairspray, Avenue Q and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (so many good musicals about this story, yet none to be seen by me!). Among others.

6. I've 55 musical cast recordings in my collection.
They're of 30 different shows and feature seven different languages. Ironically enough, one of these languages is not Finnish, and German - which I don't speak at all - is the most popular language in my collection right after English. My biggest number of CDs per show owned is, of course, Les Misérables, with eleven cast recordings and counting. My iTunes has 2,5 days of showtunes.

7. I've seen musicals live 45 times.
I've seen 25 different shows live. The show I've seen the most times is, of coure, Les Misérables, with nine times and counting, two productions seen (by the end of this year, the estimated numbers are 12 times and three different productions). Out of all the musicals I've seen, the first was Mamma Mia!'s world tour when it stopped at Helsinki, and the latest was Les Misérables, in Åbo Svenska Teater yesterday evening.

8. To me, sungthrough musicals are the best musicals.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Crowning Moments of Awesome

I think I should stop calling this thing a musical blog altogether and instead call it a blog about all things Les Mis... But I'm on a roll now! To balance out all the negativity in the previous entry, let me present you with some of my favourite things about Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Misérables, in no particular order. I guess my goal is that if someone, sometime in the future, for whatever reason, wants to stage an exact replica of the ÅST Les Mis, they don't have to go digging around the theatre's archives for the director's notes or rehearsal videos... My blog will tell them everything they need to know.
Some Superfluous Opinions - because I know reading me ramble is a bit more interesting than watching grass grow!

In this list, too? Yes!
No matter if he's played by Glenn Daniel Nilsson or Tomi Metsäketo, ÅST's Marius is the most adorable, dorky thing I've ever seen in the role (meaning that in a positive way, so Nick Jonas haters may hold their peace)! Even with him hugging Éponine all the time, which I mentioned in the previous post... I just love him.
Adorable awkwardness is not everything there is to Marius here, though. I love his more serious moments just as much as the adorkable courting Cosette scenes. From falling from a tree into Cosette's garden (never gets old!) to the way he shakes a fellow revolutionary's hand off his shoulders after Éponine has died... I love this version of Marius the best out of all the ones I've seen.

Javert's Suicide & Javert in the Finale
I guess I've mentioned how much I adore the decision of including Javert in the Finale for about seventeen times already, so I don't really need to go into much detail... Let's just say, one time more, that for once my favourite character gets the ending he deserves.
What I haven't talked about so much, yet (I think?), is the staging of Javert's Suicide. I do like the traditional West End version, but the very end... The actor rolling around the stage like a dying fly really takes something away from the drama of the moment. Luckily that's not the case here. Instead, Javert falls backwards from a bridge and disappears. Boom, gone. Not a moment of awkward dying on the stage floor - and thank goodness for that. The impact is much stronger this way.

The ABC Café
Where do I even begin with this?
The ABC Café is filled with brilliance. I don't try to claim the original staging isn't interesting, energetic and all that, but this... From the blood oath Les Amis take for the revolution to the mock fight Marius and Grantaire have after the latter has teased the former about Cosette... The less-than-gentle way Enjolras puts a stop to the aforementioned fight... The energy.
I'm especially fond of the mock fight. I admit I don't remember, clearly, the details of that moment in the original, but I think I can still say I prefer this treatment. It's such a fun, nice moment this group of friends share - only to be interrupted by a higher call. Maybe my number one favourite moment of the whole show, if it's possible to pin one down.

The Staging of the Barricade + the Aftermath of the Barricade
Simply the fact that the barricade has both sides has charmed me ever since the first time I saw this production.
In the original, we don't see who the barricade boys are fighting against. We hear a disembodied voice calling them names every now and then, and then some lights to signify the gunfire. The revolutionaries die as heroes, the opposing side staying faceless, emotionless, monstrous.
But here? We see the National Guard shooting the revolutionaries. And guess what? They're just as young, just as cute as the barricade boys. And they die, too. They, too, are fighting for what they believe to be right, and dying for their cause. I love the staging because it shows us all this and makes us think. The barricade boys aren't heroic martyrs anymore, and the whole second act seems much more realistic.
Also, after the barricade has fallen, the bodies of both sides stay onstage for a surprisingly long time: all the way from The Final Battle to Turning. Thénardier robs them during his song. Then the ensemble ladies, giving a purpose for their usually very tedious number at long last, carefully take them all, both National Guard and Les Amis, away and clear the barricade.

Gorgeous choices.

Bubbling under:
- Cosette (has a personality, pretty dress instead of the original lampshade)
- Valjean and little Cosette moments (adorablemeter hits 100%)
- the Thénardiers (not a moment of Matt Lucas-like over-the-top comedy here!)

Photo by Nana Simelius. 

Loving Critiques

So, I saw Les Misérables in Åbo Svenska Teater again a little over a week ago, after a five-month break.

As everyone who knows me in the least is aware of, Les Misérables is my favourite among all musicals, and ÅST's Les Mis is my favourite among all productions.
Naturally, I'm very sad to know it's closing the next month, and "beyond excited" is a quite mild way of telling what I felt when I was back in the theatre. "Having a full-blown mental breakdown at the theatre foyer simply because of hearing a faint rehearsal of One Day More echoing from the stage" is a bit more accurate... Luckily, all my waiting paid off. The show was, if possible, better than I remembered, and I hold on to what I've said earlier: there's so much energy here, and the energy is what makes this so good. You can see every last member of the ensemble is giving their best, there's not a single weak link in the cast.
Not to mention I've received an incredible offer... I've screamed about it to enough people already, so I don't want to say too much here, but if everything goes well... It may be the subject of my most amazing blog entry ever. You'll probably hear more about this in a week's time.

That being said, today I'm going to ruthlessly dissect everything that's wrong about the ÅST production.
Yes, I'll first be the first one to admit there's not much to complain about. I'm a fan of Victor Hugo's novel, but I still honestly think a stage production of Les Mis can work perfectly fine without being a carbon copy of it. Therefore won't rage about every little detail that's different from the book. In general, I'm really open to different interpretations. And, the overall quality being so good, I'm afraid I'll start nitpicking right away.
That said, maybe still you're curious to know which parts I love the least?

My number one complaint is the characterisation of Grantaire.
Don't get me wrong. For the most part, Tore Norrby does a brilliant job as Grantaire - in my opinion, he has a voice too good for such a minor role! But the direction of this production makes Grantaire's character a confusing one.
In the novel, Grantaire is, depending on your point of view, hopelessly in love with Enjolras or at least the revolution leader's biggest fanboy. He's also a revolution-despising sceptic and a drunk. Needless to say, thanks to their completely opposite views of the world, Enjolras doesn't appreciate his admirer much, at least not before their final moments together...
In the musical, Grantaire is still a drunk - "Grantaire, put the bottle down!" - and still a sceptic. His part in Drink With Me, the song dedicated to the everlasting friendship between the young revolutionaries, speaks volumes: "Can it be you fear to die? Will the world remember you when you're gone, could it be your death means nothing at all? Is your life just one more lie?" Even though Grantaire has followed Enjolras to the barricade, in his mind the rebels are still "them", not "we". And, even though it's not mentioned in the musical's libretto, many productions include some elements of Grantaire and Enjolras's relationship from the book (one famous example begins at 6:30 at this link).

And then, in ÅST?
Sadly, almost every opportunity of developing the interesting love/hate relationship between Grantaire and Enjolras is wasted. "Grantaire, put the bottle down!" flies past in The ABC Café, and good ol' R is the first one to take a blood oath for the revolution. He fights at the barricade. He's like a big brother to Gavroche (though that doesn't bother me) and crosses himself when the little revolutionary dies (this, then again, kind of faintly does).
And then there's Drink With Me, or Drick med mig. Being a huge fan of a Swedish-speaking production, it's a bit ironic I'm not good at the language at all. I only understand basic things and speak and write on an even more basic level... But still, I'm quite certain the translation gives Grantaire lyrics like "will anyone notice that you're dead?" What annoys me is that no one seems to react to his words. Grantaire sings his part in a clearly non-introspective way, but Enjolras kind of almost approvingly glances at him and then everybody moves on with their lives. This one guy hates the revolution and tries his best to destroy the team spirit, but hey, who cares! Wine of friendship! Skål!
Grantaire then dies next to Enjolras on the barricade. During The Finale, which in this version features the spirits of all the most important dead characters of the piece, R is the one student to return with Enjolras. The way I understand these decisions is that, in order to justify the student with the most lines after Enjolras returning in the end, they've tried to soften his character, to make him almost Enjolras's right hand. I think I can see where they're trying to go with this, but the few lines the character has, in my opinion, undermine the efforts.

Keeping on the subject of the Finale, another thing I don't understand at all is placing the Thénardiers in the front row during the final reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing.
I love, love, love that this production has Javert in the finale. As most Les Mis fans agree, Javert is not the villain of the piece and doesn't deserve to be treated like one, being excluded from the Finale's heavenly chorus. So, a standing ovation for the production for putting Javert there! But then thumbs down for mashing the Thénardiers in the same row.
I simply don't see what they're doing in the front row. First of all, from a vain point of view: if they weren't there, the stage would look so beautiful! Every dead character gets a white version of their dying costume, and Cosette and Marius in their wedding outfits fit the picture. But then there are the Thénardiers with their Beggars at the Feast costumes...
More importantly, though, they're the show's true villains - especially in ÅST, they're twice as vile as the West End Thénardiers I've seen! So why they get a spot among the heroes? I understand, the show's message being of forgiveness, that you don't want to exclude them from the Finale compeletely... But the front row placement doesn't feel right to me.

What else, what else... You see, I'm already struggling!
Well, Marius. I love Marius, he's actually one of my biggest favourite characters in Les Mis. But ÅST's Marius sometimes seems a little too dense.
Again, don't get me wrong! Marius has been played by two brilliant actors, Glenn Daniel Nilsson and now Tomi Metsäketo, and both do the character great justice. The only nitpicky detail I somewhat dislike is how much he hugs Éponine, all the time. I mean, Marius is supposed to be blind, he's not supposed to see that Éponine loves him... But can anyone be that blind? He hugs Éponine more times than I had time to count (though, I admit, him lifting Éponine off the ground was pretty hilarious) and even gives her a kiss on the cheek at one point! That's not the way you treat a friend you're not romantically interested in, is that..? It seems a bit cruel.
Beyond that, though, I've no complaints about ÅST's Marius. He's the most adorable, awkward creature ever, just the way I like to see him!

All that said... Having seen the show again, I love it more than ever, and these little faults aren't really worth anything in the big picture. I'll mourn to see the production go. A movie fan has the movie forever, but the fans of live theatre have to learn to let go... Then again, the perishability is a part of the beauty.

But at least two times more!

Photo by Nana Simelius.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Day at the Theatre

Click the picture to actually see something.

This is a one hundred percent honest account of what went down when I last went to the theatre, to see Tanz der Vampire in Seinäjoki again.

Most of this applies to every time I see shows. I usually wear Converse All Stars for long walks and the moments the need to run arises, and I have drag all sorts of stuff, from school books to packed lunches, along in my backbag so the hours in train will be bearable. Maybe going to theatre is a glamorous, special moment for some people - to me, it's special for sure, but in a way similar to extreme sports.
Theatres, why are you so far away from me?

The watermark is referring to my deviantART gallery, by the way. Like musicals, drawing is a dear hobby of mine - so of course some of my drawings are theatre-related. Check the link out if interested!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Top 5: Favourite Musical Scenes (of this moment)

Tonight, I'll tell you about my current top five musical theatre scenes. They'll chance tomorrow, I'm sure, but here's today's top five.
I know it's a really broad range to choose from. By saying "scenes", I can feature just about whatever: solos, duets, counterpoints, dance, dialogue... I may do specified lists later on (if you've an interesting top five list in mind, do comment and I shall consider!), but let's start with simply scenes. I'm going to be purely feeling-based and, instead of featuring stuff that's grand or looks stunning, feature moments I always enjoy watching.

#5: A Weekend in the Country from A Little Night Music

What can I even say about this?
A Little Night Music is, in my opinion, an excellent musical, as those who read my review some months back might remember. And this scene has it all. I love counterpoint, so I'm pretty much quaranteed to like the song just because of that... And, acting-wise, it has moments for every actor to show their chops. It's a good song and a hilarious scene, all in one.
I don't have much more to say, actually, besides repeating that I adore this moment. One of the greatest first-act finales of all time, leaving the audience really excited to see the events unfold in the second half.

#4: Le Val d'Amour from Notre Dame de Paris

 You probably don't want to watch this one with your boss/parents/little kids around - it's nothing too graphic, but blunt enough to get uncomfortable.

I'd like to open this explanation by confessing something.
I don't like watching the Notre Dame de Paris DVD performance one bit.
I know the performers are talented. I know the story is amazing, I think the book by Victor Hugo is really touching. I know the music is beautiful, I simply love the CD! But I can't get into the DVD. It, quite simply, bores me. I sometimes watch it for the music, but I always have a sketchpad and some pencils at hand because I can't help dozing off when trying to concentrate on the show itself. I can't understand why I can't like it!

The notable exception is this scene.
I don't like it because of the risque dance moves, and even the song, even though it's really good, is not the best of the show. But I think this scene the best showcases the biggest reason I think the DVD is worth checking out: Bruno Pelletier as Gringoire.
Gringoire, as you may know, is a bit of a creep in the novel. He's an unlucky, moneyless poet who, at first, is into Esmeralda like every other guy in the book - so far, so good. But as the story progresses, he loses his interest towards her and instead starts obsessing about her goat instead, to the point where he can't decide whether Esmeralda or the animal is more worth rescuing. If I recall correctly, he chooses the goat and leaves the young lady in the hands of a potential murderer-rapist. Um. Yeah.
But the musical's Gringoire is something else. He has style. I think a Youtube commentor has it down pretty nicely: "I love this guy too-Bruno -the voice, the attitude, the looks, the movements, the presence, the artistic.... WOW!!!!!"

Take a look and see for yourself.

#3: Tonight Quintet from West Side Story

This song has an example of every aspect of musical music I adore the most. Let's count... A big group number. Counterpoint. Fast tempo. Male choirs. Getting bigger and bigger towards the end. Intense emotions. Fun to belt along. Yep, this has it all. This is the moment I look forward to whenever seeing West Side Story, it's all downhill from here...
As with A Weekend in the Country, I've a hard time expanding my opinion much further, it's too feeling-based. This scene is so good it doesn't much need explaining. It works exactly as it should in the context of the show, and - when done right! I don't think I'll ever understand why the production of WSS I last saw had cut the male choirs to only Riff and Bernardo! - it looks and sounds nothing short of pure awesome.

#2: Hot Honey Rag from Chicago

Start at around 4:00!

Besides being my second favourite musical scene, this moment is the reason I'm unable of forgiving the current Finnish production of Chicago its minor mistakes. I don't mind messing with the script a bit, but removing Hot Honey Rag is quite unexcusable to me...
In all seriousness, though, I've always had a bit of a hard time understanding dancing as an art form. I don't mean I don't appreciate it - I took jazz dance lessons for years as a kid (though I always was the clumsiest student in the class), so I've some faint firsthand experience about how hard a thing to master dancing really must be...
But still, I often feel a little awkward when seeing dance numbers. I don't know why. I think I just need training to learn to really "see" the things the dance tries to convey to me. Before that realisation, expect me to keep staring at dancers with an adoring but yet confused look on my face.

That being said, Hot Honey Rag is a dance scene, and a great one at that.
First of all, I love the piece of music that goes along with it. It's just full of joy and lust for life, and, currently, it's the number one most played song in my iTunes. I can't get enough of it.
And then, of course, there's the dance itself, and for once I don't feel I'm not understanding something. With talented performers, it's simply a joy to watch. Like the song, it's amazing, really fun and energetic, so I don't think I'll get bored of the choreography anytime soon. You really believe the whole Chicago would rush to see these ladies perform!

And my number one favourite musical scene is...
#1: The Audition Scene/Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutche Band? from The Producers

Now, this is a silly one.
I've never seen The Producers live. I kind of faintly wish to, and there's going to be a production about 250 kilometers from where I live, but I'm not sure at all if the trip is worth the trouble. While I do like the original movie the musical is based on, I don't enjoy the movie of the musical. Well, sure, some parts are good, but, in general, it's quite unpleasant. The music isn't catchy in the least, and, for the most part, it's simply not that funny.
Maybe seeing it live would chance my mind, but as far as musical movies go, The Producers isn't among my favourites.

The one expection is the Audition Scene.
It's simply the most hilarious scene I've ever seen. In a musical full of pretty bored jokes and bland tunes, it's got both real, laugh-out-loud good comedy and a really, really catchy tune. It showcases everything that's good and funny about The Producers in five minutes, with a clever joke after another. It's yet to fail to make me laugh.

The first performance I've chosen to feature, up there, is from a high school production. Not a trace of the awkwardness that too often, understandably, characterises high school shows - this performance by Summit High School in New Jersey is much better than the many versions by professional actors I've seen in Youtube. Amazing energy.

And what's the last amazing thing with this scene is how it allows different, hilarious interpretations. Again, many productions do what the movie did, and so does the featured performance, to some extent... But there are non-replica jewels here and there. Just check out the following version of the No No Nietzsche guy!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dancing Vampires

Last Saturday I left for one of the most awaited musical trips of the year: I boarded a train to Seinäjoki, over 300 kilometers from where I live, to see the Finnish version of Tanz der Vampire.

I'm, by no means, an expert on the subject.

I know Tanz is wildly popular in some countries and has a strong fanbase, I know it's based on a movie from the 60's, I know it had a horrible Broadway adaptation that ran for a really short time a few years back, and... Well, that's all. I don't think I'm the best person to lecture the reader about the history of this show.

However, knowing that Tanz is loved by many, I was really excited about the Finnish version. I knew the same theatre had done, with the same director (Olli-Matti Oinonen), a very popular version of The Rocky Horror Show in the 90's - so popular that it was even recorded, a really rare event in Finland. Also, even though I often try to avoid reviews before seeing the shows myself, I had caught glimpses of a couple posivite fan comments beforehand.

So, despite Seinäjoki being a pretty small town (around 60 000 inhabitants) and sometimes described, by us who live near Helsinki and think we're indefinitely more awesome than the rest of the country, as a boring trap situated handily in the middle of nowhere... I was very hopeful. As usual, I tried to keep my expectations down, but I don't remember feeling this positive about a production I've never seen before in a while.

What I wondered, though, was the theatre's decision to name the show Dance of the Vampires instead of using the original Tanz der Vampire or a native translation, Vampyyrien tanssi in Finnish, as all other productions seemed to have done. While Vampyyrien tanssi is used at some places, it's mostly known as Dance - I can't see why, using English seems a bit pretentious to me. But you can't judge anything by its name alone, so moving on.

I don't remember being this entertained by a piece of musical theatre in a long while.

The piece is almost perfect: it's got an amazing mix of humor and more serious moments to keep a full grip of the watcher's attention. No song stuck in my head in an earworm-ish way after the show, but the score is definitely very good. I've no problem understanding why so many people like this musical, it has everything needed for a great night at theatre.

Plot-wise, it's The Phantom of the Opera in a little different setting. You have the beautiful girl; the cute, sincere young man who'd do anything for her; the menacing, dark, sexy creature of the night... But what, in my opinion, makes this even better than The Phantom is the usage of humor. Tanz has a perfect balance: it doesn't take itself seriously but doesn't slip into too campy territory either. Unlike Phantom, Tanz lets you laugh. It has the exciting moments between the girl and the mysterious older man, it has the cute love duets between the girl and her young admirer... and it has scenes so funny you can't breathe in between your fits of laughter.

Also, what pleased me greatly about the piece was the usage of music. I love sung-through pieces, so Tanz is perfect for my tastes, and I really enjoyed the underscored moments too. There are scenes that had action but no dialogue, and the action was set to a background music. This is of course often seen with dance scenes in musicals, but here some slapstick moments also have underscore, which I hadn't really seen done before but enjoyed a lot.

And it's not just the source material that's good. It's a really unconventional choice for a small theatre, I think, and I'm really glad Seinäjoki City Theatre had the courage to do it. They do the show beautiful justice.

We saw the show only a week from the premiere, so there's reason to suspect the performances will only get more refined in the future, but that's not to say they weren't really good already. I think I enjoyed Esa Ahonen as the Professor and Ville Salonen as Alfred the most - the former was simply hilarious (and his first song really amazed the audience, me included), and the latter was the epitome of the word adorable. If I have to say something negative, I think Heikki Vainionpää's Chagal was a bit too over-acted for my tastes. Then again, the part seemed to be written in an over-the-top way anyway, so it didn't bother me too much.

As a whole, the whole cast's energy really radiated to the auditorium. Everyone seemed to be giving their best and enjoying what they were doing.

I bought a CD of the show while I was in Berlin this summer, and, having finally listened to it, I have to say I honestly prefer the Finnish voices. If there ever was a Finnish show worth a cast recording, this is it. Pretty please! I especially enjoyed Jyri Lahtinen's (the Count) voice - one of the best I've heard in Finnish theatre.

Also, contributing to the quality of the songs, Marika Hakola's Finnish translation was, no doubt, the best one I've ever heard. There wasn't one awkward moment, but every song sounded as natural as if the libretto was originally written in Finnish. I was truely impressed.

Finally, the sets and costumes were nothing short of beautiful, and the choreography was just as good. If I've had some prejudice towards small theatres previously, this production really blows them away. The show looked and sounded so good I doubt any of the biggest theatres of Finland could've done any better job, and I've actually even seen a West End musical looking way worse than this.

In a nutshell, I recommend this musical to everyone, everywhere.

If you, by any means, can get to Seinäjoki, do it. I doubt you'll be disappointed. Personally, I'm planning of seeing the show at least once more (in ten days, to be exact. I don't think I could wait for any longer), though I'm sure that's not going to be enough. Too bad the distance is stopping me from seeing this every weekend!

Photos by Ari Ijäs, Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Production Photos

For the briefest moment this fall, there'll be two Swedish-speaking (or singing) productions of Les Misérables competing for the affection of the Nordic public. One, my beloved dear domestic production, continues in Åbo Svenska Teater, Finland, and the other is premiering these days in Malmö Opera, Sweden.
I'm incredibly lucky and will see the both in less than two months' time.

Also, the first pictures of the latter have just been released.

One Day More

As we can see, the Malmö production will be a modern take of a period piece.
Not taking the period the show is set in literally is not a new idea by any means, for example Spring Awakening had similar concept right from the beginning. It's a concept rarely associated with Les Misérables, though - this regional production of Les Mis is the only other one that comes to mind.

I'm not sure if I'm a fan of treatment like this, considering that I haven't seen a show that does so live. I can imagine it going two ways: either the modern design will be a lovely breath of fresh air often much needed with classics, or it will make getting emotionally involved in the history-based story virtually impossible. I shall see.
But, whatever I shall think about this production, I think it's absolutely thrilling to see Les Mis with a new twist like this. Having seen the original London and the dissimilar but still period-accurate Åbo production, it'll be fun seeing a radically different spin of my favourite musical for a change.

I don't want to speculate too much, it never ends up anywhere near truth, but let's see the photos anyway.

 Valjean Arrested

So, 25601. Thanks to syllable-related problems, Valjean's number is a bit modified in the Swedish translation. Amazing moustache you've got there, Guard #1!

Master of the House or Beggars at the Feast - with the bare stage, it could go either way

These Thénardiers creep me out the biggest time. They look like the cast of Oliver! gone very, very, very wrong. But, considering we're talking about the Thénardiers, that's all good.

Lovely Ladies

Also, the creepiest Lovely Ladies I've ever seen. Whatever this production will be, too calm and non-threatening won't be a thing associated with it!

Javert's Soliloquy, I guess

So, the Malmö Javert is bald. Wow, quite a change to the traditional ponytail-and-sideburns-all-over types! I think I like his looks quite a lot.

 The Runaway Cart

The ensemble is doing their best to remind me of Mozart, L'opéra rock...

Valjean's Confession

Seeing the first photos of the ÅST production last year, I speculated whether Alexander Lycke would play the first beardless professional Valjean ever. But nope, he had a fine beard going by the premiere. Wonder if Dan Ekborg will really go for this radical style with no last-minute chances of facial hair? I sure hope so!

So, after seeing these pictures, what do I think?
Well, for the most part, I've no problems with anything. This production won't have visually boring moments, that's for sure! Still, I've no idea if the modern style will distract from the historical piece, but I'll be wiser in a few weeks.
If I have to complain about something, it's that angel statue hanging in the background. I've seen it only in these pictures, being lit white or red according to the mood of the scene, and I'm already a bit bored by the obvious symbolism. But maybe there are more innovative uses that really surprise me.

To be completely honest, though, there's the deal with the two simultaneous Swedish productions I mentioned in the beginning. Sadly, I'm really, really biased towards the ÅST production. 
Since I first saw it soon a year ago, I've been a huge fan of it - as the readers of my blog surely know. I know I don't, in reality, have anything to do with it except for sitting in the audience in steady intervals, but I call it my production in my mind. It's so dear to me, and, due to the lack of Les Mis fans in Finland (let me know if you're one of us. We need to unionize and form a One Day More flashmob before the final show. Or something), I can freely praise the production everywhere along my online adventures, and there's usually no one to question my opinions.
So, what if this new Swedish production beats the one I have adored so much in overall amazingness, during the older show's final month of performances? To me, it'd equal my favourite ice hockey team losing in the finals. I know it's insane to talk like this about theatre productions (what's next? The fans of Helsinki City Theatre meeting the admirers of The National Theatre at the square to brawl?), but I've a hard time shaking the feeling...
Despite it, though, these pictures have made me really curious and I can't wait to see what the Malmö Opera does with my favourite musical.

Finally... There's one solid reason for me to wish the Malmö production won't be too much awesome. 
If it's really amazing, I'll be competely out of money before the end of this year due to frequent visits to the neighbouring country!

A post about the woes of being an obsessed Mizzie coming up.
I think I've put the Les Mis album comparison to permanent hiatus. After getting three and a half new cast recordings during this summer, I see no point continuing. If it was your favourite thing here, speak up now and I may continue, otherwise I'll let it be.

 The pictures are by Malin Arnesson, from Malmö Opera's website.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Sorry about the delay with the last Three Days of West End story. For a reason or another, talking about The Phantom of the Opera doesn't inspire me, even though I adore the show. Maybe another time, maybe not, we'll see. But now...

Jesus Christ Superstar with Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius Hall, Lahti, 27.8.2011.

JCS is one of those shows I have wanted to see for ages.
The premise is so weird - a musical about the life and death of Jesus Christ? Wow. And I've loved the music ever since I first heard it, some of my favourite musical theatre songs of all time are from it. Of course I was excited when I heard it was being done and rushed to get the tickets.
Still, I didn't get my hopes really high when the day approached. I had read bad reviews about some of the actors, and, for a reason I can't really articulate, I just didn't feel all that extatic. Either school pressure or the bored pessimist in me taking charge, I guess. Or both.

So, I'm glad to tell you this concert surpassed the little expectations I had and ranked itself among my favourite productions of all time.

Sibelius Hall

I had never visited Sibelius Hall before, and I have to say, it's pretty fancy. It's, to all you non-Finnish readers out there, named after maybe the most appreciated Finnish composer and situated next to a lake, with lots of wooden details. I think "the epitome of all things Finnish" was the architect's inspiration...
Me and my friend had amazing seats: second row, right in the middle, and by a stroke of luck no one sat in front of us. At first, I was afraid it was too close, but actually, it was perfect. I've a somewhat eccentric Finnish teacher who once told us he likes to sit in the very front in theatre because "you'll get the best vibes there". I'm starting to agree.

The show sounded great with the whole symphony orchestra and a big choir. I'm afraid we were a little too close for perfect acoustics, since it sometimes felt the voices and sounds blurred into each other a bit (even though the hall's acoustics are sometimes mentioned among the world's best), but since we got to watch the performers so closely - and the blurring was still much milder than in many other shows I've seen - it didn't matter much at all.

As for the performances... 
The only disappointment of the night was Sami Hintsanen's Judas. His voice suited the part very well, but I didn't really get the feeling his character felt much anything. He more sung the part than acted it, and even though it's in a concert form, it's still a piece of theatre... Also, some of his mannerisms really started to bug me after a while.
But everyone else, in my opinion, did a beautiful job. Maria Ylipää was lovely - as always! - as Maria Magdalene, but it was Hannu Lepola's Jesus that really did it for me. He was perfect. His voice was gorgeous, and his expression was, indeed, of "the haunting, hunted kind". His was maybe the best Gethsemane I've ever heard, it was gorgeous and warranted a huge applause. A beautiful, strong performance.
Not to say the smaller parts were any worse! I really liked them all, they had huge energy and did justice to their roles, but my favourite was perhaps Anssi Valikainen's Pilate. You really felt for the character when watching him; you saw the character's inner struggle when he was facing the difficult decisions he has to face. Great, great job.

I think Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows that work with really little staging, so the concert setting didn't bother me at all. The piece is, without any doubt, strong enough to hold on its own without fancy sets or big dance scenes.
The weirdest fact of the night was that the whole piece was sung in English, since usually musicals are translated into Finnish around here. However, I understand their decision. Opera isn't translated either, and having a look at the Finnish lyrics that ran above the stage as subtitles confirmed what I've heard said before: the Finnish translation is a bad one. It had a couple of clever moments, but it also had at least five awkward wordings per every smart line. If you're translating Jesus Christ Superstar, I feel you should be extra careful with those bits that have biblical references. "It is finished" has a little different feeling than the translation's "It's over now!"...

The applause after the show was rather huge. For the first time, though, I realised what the person who once spoke about applause being distruptive here in my blog's comments meant. JCS is such a strong story - I think I would have needed a minute's silence before applause to get my train of thought back to everyday world again.

All in all, an amazing night.

The picture is not mine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Three Days of West End: Love Never Dies

Here it is. The big one, the one everybody loves to hate.
Siiri reviews Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies.

If I'm so sure no one likes Love Never Dies, what was I doing, seeing it? Well...
  • I felt I can't really badmouth LND properly before I really see it - and, who knows, maybe I'd like it live after all?
  • I loved Ramin Karimloo in The Phantom of the Opera and in the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert, so I really wanted to see him again.
  • David Thaxton as Raoul. As I've noticed, around the Les Mis fandom talking about Thaxton may result in some quite heated exchange of opinions, but I'll still confess something: I had seen Thaxton two times before Love Never Dies, both times as Enjolras, back when I was a brand-new Les Mis fan. And I don't remember anything about his performance. Sacrilegious, huh? So, I wanted to see Thaxton in something, if only for the reason I could say I remember seeing him...

If you want to read about my opinions based on the CD alone before diving into the full stage experience, take a look at here. And, mind you, I really like the original Phantom. I try to stay as respectful as I can, but if you love Love Never Dies with all your heart, you might want to close this window now...

First, I'll analyse the characters. Because this is a sequel, the way the characters have developed is of course an interesting aspect to observe. Let's begin with the Phantom.
In some ways, The Phantom is still the same guy he was ten years before. He's just as obsessed about Christine as before. You'd suspect he's going to die without her after the original, but if that doesn't happen, him setting up a new lair and mourning his lost love is the second-best guess.
But otherwise... Don't you think this Phantom is a bit, well, too high-functioning, compared to the original character? In The Phantom of the Opera, the title character had severe difficulties with interacting with the rest of the world. He had spent decades hiding, obsessing about his own appearance to an unhealthy degree. By the end of the show, we've found out he is a blackmailer, a kidnapper and a murderer. He mopes about the world abandoning him, but doesn't try very hard to gain its appreciation.
In Love Never Dies, the Phantom - still with no proper name given - is a successful businessman with his own amusement park. He has become more social, and at one point he even confronts Raoul without his mask on. You'd think that situation would rip open a dozen scars and make him feel really vulnerable, but he goes through the whole incident with a smile on his face. By the end, he's making speeches of inner beauty and trying to rescue damsels in distress, not causing the distress in the first place.
People change, sure, but to me such huge changes as these seem very unlikely.

Christine, then again, has a little more believable character arch.
We don't really know that much about her character, based on the original. She misses her late father, has musical talents and finds herself in a difficult situation between two men. Still, her inner world remains a bit of a mystery to us. Does she get engaged to Raoul because she loves him or because she needs protection from the danger the Phantom represents? Despite her fears, she does see something in the Phantom - so is there something more than pity behind her decision to kiss him? 
We don't know, and that's why Christine's still a believable character in Love Never Dies. Of course, it's rather cruel of her to sleep with the Phantom the night before her wedding, but I think it's very well possible she might regret choosing to marry Raoul.

Speaking about Raoul... His character actually made me laugh a little. 
Maybe he was a bit of a stereotype, being the young, cute, love-struck hero in the original, but here he hasn't so much developed as turned into another stereotype: the drinking, gambling, possibly wife-and-kid-beating jerk. And so angry at that it's almost funny. It's not the actor's fault, but the way the character is written... This is unacceptable, do you hear me! Must you make that racket!! Heh. Poor guy. 

The last characters transported from the original are the Girys, Madame and Meg.
Meg is another character I can see developing to this direction. She didn't seem too keen on the ballet in the original, and we know very little about her. Therefore we can't really claim she didn't wish to be a vaudeville performer the whole time.
But Madame Giry... She is a bit of a showbiz mother in the original, teaching Meg the ballet, sure, but I don't see her abandoning the opera. Ballet seems to mean so much to her in the original, and the way she acts as a link between the Phantom and rest of the world doesn't mean she isn't afraid of him, nor that she would want to help him to set up an amusement park on another continent. I just don't see it happening.

To the story!
I think the show's first act is a bit of a mess. I like some of the music a lot, but the act itself - all the issues with characterisations aside - doesn't feel whole to me. Not every part seems to belong. It's probably a result of the extensive rewrites the show went through, though I'm ready to admit many of them were for the better.

So, as you may know, nowadays the show begins with 'Til I Hear You Sing. I love this song. Whatever is said about Love Never Dies, 'Til I Hear You Sing is a showtune of the first class and Ramin Karimloo sung it really, really beautifully.
Unfortunately, the messiness of the first act kicked in right after the brilliant first song. After the amazing starter, the plot disappears somewhere for a good while, leaving the audience to watch a cavalcade of projections and circus acts. Neat. Then we get some exposition and some more exposition in the form of Madame Giry and Meg. Finally, after quite a while - though the wait wasn't quite as long as on the CD - we see Christine and Raoul and the plot accelerates again.

After meeting the main characters from the original again, I found myself enjoying some scenes. For example, the big ensemble song, Dear Old Friend, and Christine and Phantom's first love duet, Beneath a Moonless Sky, were to my tastes. Even though the latter's lyrics sound like a middle schooler's draft at vaguely erotic poetry, it's a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I just like the tune. 
Nevertheless, couldn't they have remove the second love duet when they were rearranging the show? From my point of view, two in a row feel rather tedious, even though the second song comes back in the finale of the show.

The act wraps up with The Beauty Underneath, a duet between Phantom and Christine's ten-year-old son. Like the title song of the original, it doesn't quite match the tone of the rest of the score. Fine. Except for that the song, in my opinion, is absolutely creepy. 
Maybe this is hopelessly immature of me... But listen to it, imagine an adult woman sings the boy soprano's part and, then, tell me about the situation you imagine this song accompanies. "Don't you feel amazing things?/Things you know you can't confess/Things you thirst for, nonetheless." Um.
When seeing the action onstage, the piece doesn't sound quite so weird, but I think the lyrics should've been thought out a little more carefully.

The second act feels a little more whole to me, maybe because it hasn't undergone so many changes. Again, there are some songs I enjoy quite a lot, most notably the Entr'acte and the both versions of Devil Take the Hindmost (I'm a big sucker for counterpoints). The big Phantom of the Opera reprise moment is a favourite of mine, too, even if it doesn't leave quite so big an impact anymore than on the CD - there are maybe too many hints to the original in the current version.
Sadly, again, there are problems.
My biggest peeve with this act was how it set up the main dilemma from the original Phantom once again. Will Christine sing or not? Which one of these two men will she choose? Been there, seen that, yawn. It's even more boring because the solution is so obvious this time: would you rather go with a constantly angry moron who has gambled away all your money and hates your kid, or with a rich amusement-park owner who is extremely in love with you, and, despite a minor flaw in is facial complexion, is also quite sexy? Hmm. I truely wonder.
And while I'm at it... Why Christine only has two choices, anyway? Isn't walking away without either of these men an option at all? Christine doesn't set up a great example of an independent woman. I'm certain she could've earned a living on her own, with her obvious musical talent, but unfortunately the show doesn't set that as an option.

Finally, the ending of the show - spoilers ahoy! - almost made me fall asleep. With the Phantom's heroic speech about Meg being beautiful inside and whatnot, the Finale feels almost like a joke to me. This is a man who has been so embarrassed of himself that he has spent half of his life hiding, and now he lectures about inner beauty. Yep. The ridiculousness of the plot, which has been kept in a decent check for most of the time, really flourishes during the ending.
I mean... How long does it take for a person to die from a gunshot? If you think A Little Fall of Rain in Les Mis is stretching it, try to sit through Christine dueting with the Phantom without getting a sudden urge to scream "die already!" And, again, after she finally draws her last breath, and Raoul comes back to observe the body... I felt like laughing. I could almost hear Raoul speaking: "Man... I leave my wife with you for two minutes and this is the result? Geez..." Not the reaction the scene was going for.
I think the whole story, and score, of Love Never Dies, is hit-and-miss. Score mostly hit, but story mostly miss. If Lloyd Webber had used this music with an original tale, I'd surely enjoyed the result more, but sadly Love Never Dies can't survive comparisons with the original.

A word about the scenery: I think the sets and costumes are beautiful. However, as said, the original is always in the watcher's mind, and I don't think they quite match it. Then again, not many shows will, sequels or not. On their own, the sets are very nice, even incredible sometimes. The skeleton lady in the Phantom's lair, for example, was simply amazing! I also loved the lights surrounding the balconies - in my opinion they could've been even more blingy.

Lastly, the cast. As said, I saw the show with Ramin Karimloo and David Thaxton, with Celia Graham as Christine. 
They did the best they could, I'm certain of that, and I really enjoyed their performances and voices. But, no matter how talented the cast, this show remains a mess to me. I'm not surprised it's closing soon. It's not for my tastes, and I don't think I'll be buying the upcoming DVD anytime soon.

The photos aren't mine. 
The photo with the Phantom and Christine by Joel Ryan, the one with Meg by Jonathan Hordle.