Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Weekend in the Country

I saw A Little Night Music, or Kesäyön hymyilyä in Finnish (translates back into Smiles of a Summer Night), in Turku City Theatre a little over a week ago.
First I want to tell you how much I love they actually gave it a Finnish name! That's not usual - Next to Normal is Next to Normal, Wicked is Wicked, Spring Awakening is Spring Awakening... Even Tanz der Vampire will be Dance of Vampires, not Vampyyrien tanssi!
I understand wanting to keep the original name if the show is really well-known, like Cats or Les Misérables, but I think it's always lovely when shows get Finnish names. As long as they make sense, that is! La Cage aux Folles is way too weird for Finns to pronounce, but I've no idea why it was renamed, equally weirdly, ZAZA! Lainahöyhenissä. "ZAZA!"?
But I digress. In a nutshell, I think this musical has a nice name. Moving on.

I saw A Little Night Music on Broadway last year, with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I don't remember much of that performance, the only image imprinted in my brain seems to include the jerk sitting below me, apparently accompanying her grandma to theatre, sending text messages for the whole first act. Besides that, I remember being so jet lagged it was hard to stay awake, and also didn't understand half of the lyrics - that's Sondheim for a non-native English speaker...
However, I remember liking the music and later bought the CD, which I love. So, I went to the theatre thinking quite positively but still a little alarmed - you can never be sure if a show you like will be done in a way you hope it would...

Luckily this version surpassed my expectations!

As usual, I went to the theatre with my friend Sara, and, as usual, we were the youngest people present. Granted, A Little Night Music is not exactly a show many teenagers would find thrilling, but thanks to the Senior Citizens' Club of Loimaa, the auditorium was even older than usually...
It took the senior citizens a tiny while to get into the show - "Now/Later/Soon" got the lamest applause - but I think they started to enjoy it after a while (at least they were happier than The Senior Teacher's Club of Kouvola who saw Rebecca with me and later commented it "should've been two to three hours shorter").
Only one theatre behaviour tip to the lovely people in the audience: even if the show starts with a quite unconventional a cappella overture, it's still the time to shut up when the lights fade!

Finally, to the actual review.
Briefly, I thought it was a beautiful production - very much like watching a good period movie onstage. I liked it a lot.

Maybe I could get over with any nitpicks I have first.
Firstly, I do wish productions would stop putting in unnecessary comic reliefs. You know the guy who hangs in the background in growd scenes doing something silly, being drunk, faltering? I've seen variations of that guy in many shows, and I wish they'd get rid of him. It feels like talking down to an audience, telling us to laugh at simple jokes, and, at least in A Little Night Music's case it's also distracting. The show has lots of witty humor on its own, you don't need to add any slapstick.
Also, I've no idea why they chose to put Frederik sing "Now" in a bathtub. It was odd because his sleeping in it seemed really unconfortable, and some chunks of bubble foam also splashed onstage and stayed there for the better half of the first act. Annoying.
Finally, I don't like how they cut one verse from "The Miller's Son." It's my second favourite song of the musical! Luckily, it was the only thing they cut, so it can easily be forgiven.

See the unnecessary comic reliefs wobbling awkwardly in the background?

Now, to my favourite part - the especially good stuff!

First, the translation was pure goodness.
Usually Finnish translations are a bit tired. Wicked was, to put it bluntly, bad, as was West Side Story. Chicago wasn't good either. Spring Awakening and Next to Normal were just what I said - tired. It seems only a couple of people translate shows here, and you can hear it's sadly becoming a routine for them.
Not the case with this. A Little Night Music, with Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, probably isn't the easiest musical to translate. But this translation, by Juice Leskinen, hit the nail on the head. Sadly Leskinen can't give us more beautiful musical translations, since he passed away several years ago, but luckily he had the time to do this and also Sweeney Todd. I wish they'd given him Songheim's whole works, I believe he'd had the talent for them!
My only reproach would be leaving "liaisons" be "liaisons" - I doubt many Finns know the meaning of the French word.

The first act, at least according to my friend Sara, "was soooo boring". I don't quite share her opinion, I for example think "A Weekend in the Country" (one of my favourite musical ensemble numbers!) sounded pretty much as good as it can get. But I have to admit the very beginning, with a quite weird a cappella thing before the actual overture begun, took a while to get going, and the second act made me laugh a lot more.

Actually, the second half of the show had some fine moments of pure hilarity.
Some little things I remember include them turning "just the glow of my cigar" into a sexual innuedo, and in a funny way. The comedy continued with the actors taking the most out of their roles: making Henrik (Jukka Nylund) shout out loud at a lake in frustration was a stroke of genius, I think!
Fredrik's (Arne Nylander) and Carl-Magnus's (Mikko Vihma) interaction comes to mind too. Nylander is a really tall man and Vihma's slimmer and smaller. In the second act, when they got into a fight... I almost suffocated seeing the smaller man dangling from his rival, who hardly aknowledges the fact there's an angry dragoon clutching him. I know I just said slapstick's a no-no - but this was so relevant to the plot and so hilariously done I couldn't stop laughing! Not to mention Vihma's "In Praise of Women" - he was just as arrogant and amusing as you could wish.

 Allow me to illustrate.

I could also mention that I liked Kirsi Tarvainen as Desirée a lot. I like the role of Desirée because it gives women with interesting, unusual, beautiful voices the change to sing. There aren't that many big musical roles for deep altos like Tarvainen has, but I loved hearing her in this!
All in all, there wasn't a weak link in the cast. And what made it even more interesting to me, the Liebeslieder Quintet featured another of Finland's two ex-Enjolrati...

The sets looked simply lovely, and the stage directions were, mostly, successful.
The Broadway version was pretty minimalistic, but this one had a little more details and settings. Something happened in the background nearly all the time, but not in a distracting way (well, not counting the comic reliefs here). For example, during "The Glamorous Life" there was a snowstorm in the background, subtly underlining the fact that Desirée's life may not be so glamorous after all. During "Liaisons" there were some slow-motion-like beekeepers in their hats and overalls, spraying theatre smoke onstage - it had nothing to do with the song, actually, but it looked really beautiful and mysterious, almost magical. I thought it was also very clever how "Remember" was sung by the troupe of actors, relaxing backstage and recounting their own memories that happen to collide with those of our main characters...
And the fake lake in the second act... I think it's one of the most beautiful sets I've ever seen. With the sun mirroring from the water it's the epitome of a Nordic summer night when sun never sets.

Finally, I think it was beautiful how they left the ending open to interpretation. 
Did Madame Armfeldt die? We don't know. Fredrika pushed her wheelchair to the waterfront and the sun set - but we can't know for sure if it was her time to go or not. I think that's a good way to do it. Having a character die in the last minute of a show doesn't really lift the audience's spirits. In my opinion it may be better to let us leave the theatre with romantic violins playing in our heads, believing that everybody, after all, lived happily ever after...

In a nutshell, despite its little flaws, I think Turku City Theatre's Kesäyön hymyilyä is a thoroughly enjoyable production of A Little Night Music.
I'm afraid many people will think like my friend Sara does: all the songs sound the same and the plot is a confusing mess between comedy and drama. But I'm sure Sondheim fans will love this production, and would recommend it to everyone - you can't help enjoying the gorgeous visuals at the very least!

Here's a short but lovely ad for the show:

Photos from Turun Kaupunginteatteri's website.

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