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.