Friday, December 21, 2012

Two Short Reviews: Violins and Electroshocks

I've seen a handful of shows lately. So, instead of a huge rant about each, it's time for a combination post of short reviews again: Viulunsoittaja katolla / Fiddler on the Roof in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri and Next to Normal in Tampereen Työväen Teatteri.

Viulunsoittaja katolla / Fiddler on the Roof, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri

Riitta Havukainen as Golde, Esko Roine as Tevje.

I swore I wouldn't see this show. My excuse: a friend invited me... And I admit, I was curious about Fiddler. The whole world seems to love it, so maybe there's something to like, even for me?

Indeed, let's start with the good things. I enjoyed Esko Roine as Tevje. Fiddler, to me, seems like a show that will fall flat on its face if the actor playing Tevje isn't up to the task. Luckily, Roine was. His Tevje felt real to me. The problems he faced seemed like something that could've once happened in someone's real life. He wasn't a hero, he made some dubious choices – like a real human being.

I also quite liked the supporting cast. There were some actors whose performances grated on me, but as a whole, the cast did a good job. A special nod to Tuukka Leppänen as Perchik. I felt a tad more awake whenever he was onstage.

Everyone knows Fiddler's music, and it was pretty nice hearing it live. It is rather catchy (read: enjoy listening to If I Were a Rich Man play in your head for the rest of your earthly life).

Then the bad. I think the show was bo-ring. Nothing seemed to happen. I was ready for the intermission about seven times during the first half. The piece also suffered from mood swings: upsetting moments and cheap laughs followed each other with no break in between. Also, the ending felt completely empty to me. Were the villagers even upset?

What's more, the characters, apart from Tevje, were paper-thin. It's more to do with the script than the actors, but it's a problem nevertheless. Tevje's daughters didn't seem to have any defining characteristics. Two out of three suitors had some character, but then there was the last one. It baffled me how one of the daughters made a huge sacrifice for a man who is given three minutes onstage.

While the sets, costumes and choreography served their purpose, I don't think there was anything new or creative in them, nor in Hans Berndtsson's direction as a whole. See how much has changed, visually, since the 60s.

I stand behind what I've said previously: I think Fiddler is a safe and boring choice, perfect for summer outdoor theatres, and I'm disappointed HKT did it. I sure could've lived without this production. However, if a rehash of a fifty-year-old show brings in this enthusiastic audiences (I've never heard people applausing dialogue scenes in a musical before)... I guess the theatre must be happy with their pick.

Raili Raitala as Hodel, Tuukka Leppänen
– as you can recognise from his face as Perchik.

Next to Normal, Tampereen Työväen Teatteri

Eriikka Väliahde as Diana.

Last time I wrote about Next to Normal, I listed what's wrong with the show. While I came to the conclusion that I might want to see Next again, I soon noticed I didn't actually agree with my own opinion. The mere thought of seeing the show one more time started making me annoyed, for all the reasons listed in the previous review: the black-and-white view of treating mental illnesses, the weak second act, the show forcing its opinions down the audience's throat... I felt that no, I've officially stopped liking this thing, too bad I still have a ticket for the Tampereen Työväen Teatteri version.

Not so bad after all! I left TTT as a N2N fan again. I've now seen three versions of Next to Normal, and TTT's is the best out of them. 

The story has never felt this real to me. I completely forgot about its problems watching this. It's a shame TTT didn't change the family's name to something Finnish, like Wasa Teater did, I think that would've made the show hit even closer to home... But I loved the changes they did make. Most notably, they changed the song Better Than Before into dialogue. The slightly witty tune turned into a proper, much-needed but not out-of-place comic relief. The audience was actually laughing. Overall, TTT managed to turn the dragging second act into something interesting. Tuomas Parkkinen's direction had a couple of moments I could've done without, but as a whole, the show had a nice flow going on.

What's more, two thumbs up for Kristiina Saha's sets! It was refreshing to see them take a different turn from the usual cold and angular Next sets. I especially liked Natalie's cage-like little own space.

The cast (Eriikka Väliahde, Puntti Valtonen, Jukka Nylund, Emmi Kaislakari, Juha-Matti Koskela, Toni Harjajärvi) impressed too. When I saw the Wasa Teater production, I wrote they had managed to make my usual least favourite character Natalie compelling – here, I could almost call her my favourite. Kaislakari made her character alive in a way I could, if not relate to, at least understand. Not to say Natalie's family was any worse. Touching and real are words I could describe both Väliahde's Diana and Valtonen's Dan with. The latter's voice didn't seem suited for the part and therefore didn't really hold a candle to other Dans I've seen (greetings to Sören Lillkung), but that hardly mattered, I liked the overall performance nevertheless.

TTT's Next to Normal has four performances left. I recommend it for everyone.

The neat-o set. And the cast!

Photos by Tapio Vanhatalo and Petri Kovalainen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Making Theatre Magic

A little background: in Finland, the theatres are rather different from the standard Broadway/West End theatre. Instead of concentrating on one show at a time, Finnish theatres can have a dozen of plays in their repertoire at the same time. Theatres also usually have multiple stages, so same theatre can have many performances on the same night. I got a chance to take a little tour at Tampereen Työväen Teatteri, in the Finnish city of Tampere, so here's a peek into the backstage world of a Finnish theatre. Originally written for school.
Tampereen Työväen Teatteri looks calm during the day. The lights are off, and the doors won't be opened for the public for many hours. Inside the theatre, however, things are looking busy. During the day, the upcoming productions are being transformed from imagination to reality.

"It's impossible to learn these by heart!"

Tampereen Työväen Teatteri, December 5th, 10AM. It has just been announced in the central radio that Carmen's [a drama version, not the opera] rehearsals will start in a minute. The actors gather around the main stage of the theatre. Chatting, leafing through the scripts, joking – I even hear someone worry about memorizing their lines.

The play will premiere in February, and the whole theatre is preparing for it. Among other things. There are multiple productions under construction inside the theatre.

Sets for Tampere – and the United States

Marianne Rautiainen's handiwork can
soon be admired in Washington, D.C.
While the actors are familiarising themselves with Carmen's dialogue, stagehands are moving big towers covered with plywood onstage.

Besides Carmen, the theatre's set workshop, which is one of the largest of its kind in Finland, is working on several other upcoming pieces. One of them is a play called Lämminveriset. The play premiered two years ago, and it's been a while since the last performance in TTT, too. However, the piece is now changing continents: it will be performed in Washington, D.C., as a part of the Nordic Cool festival, next year.

Marianne Rautiainen, who works in the set workshop, curses the size of the Lämminveriset sets. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has a smaller stage than TTT, so the sets have to be changed to fit. First, the plan was to send five containers of sets to the US. Now the number has been reduced to three. However, there's still work to do, both with the sets that are going abroad and the ones that are staying in Tampere.

All sets begin as small scale models. The set designer plans the model, based on the script and discussions with the director. Then the set workshop's carpenters, metal workers and surface finishing workers will build full-scale versions of the elements in the model.

Tiina Vanhapelto working on a jug made to be broken.
"A well-done set helps the actor to act and the audience to see", says set designer Hannu Lindholm, who has been working in the profession for 45 years.

The plays, of course, need more than just sets. There are also the props, the items used onstage, and they're the handiwork of a different workshop

"You have to learn to apply your skills to new situations", Tiina Vanhapelto, a substitute worker in the props workshop, says about her job.

The prop workshop can be asked to do just everything, from sails for a boat to taxidermy animal heads. The workers need a vast knowledge of arts and crafts. 

Looks shape a character

Creating costumes. In front, Kaija Koljonen, behind
her Heli Tapper, Päivi Hatanpää ja Sini Paronen.
Carmen's rehearsals keep going on the big scene. They're working on a scene for three actors, so one of the artists waiting for their turn takes the chance to visit the costume workshop for a fitting. Looks are an important part of all characters, and in TTT, it's of course professionals who take care of them.

Like sets, costumes are based on a draft. Instead of a scale model, though, the costume designer draws a picture of their vision. The costume workshop, then, creates the costumes based on the sketches. The style and the materials of the finished costume reflect the original drawing. The workshop also adds little theatre tricks to the clothing: they sew different pieces of clothing together and add hidden zippers, so the costumes can be changed in seconds during the show.

A character's hair has to look right, too. For that task, the theatre has its own hair salon, where the hairdos and wigs are born. During the day, the salon takes care of the hairdos of the actors who use their own hair onstage. Hair is a part of the character's design, just like costumes, even when it's the actor's own instead of a wig.

"An actor can't always decide whether they look good or not", actor Heidi Kiviharju says.

Emmi Lahtinen (in front) and Tiina Ryynänen take care of actors' hair.
In salon chairs, Heidi Kiviharju and Teija Auvinen.
There can be up to three performances on the same night on different stages at TTT. So, the evenings can be quite a hassle. Therefore, the hair and make-up salon only helps with the most complicated hairdos and masks during the performances. Before the show and during it the actors mostly take care of their own looks.

The rehearsal goes on

"Dear lord, I felt so frightened!"

One of the high plywood-covered towers used for Carmen's rehearsals has just almost toppled over. The next time, the stagehands keep the tower standing – but unfortunately, it starts moving downstage too late. Luckily, there's still time before the premiere. In February, the lines will be memorized, and it's not too likely the sets will topple over in front of a live audience.

When I leave the theatre, winter sun is shining, but the windows of TTT's foyer stay dark. The audience won't arrive in hours. Inside, however, the preparations for the night's performances and the upcoming productions continue on full speed.

Sama suomeksi.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Phenomenon: Les Mis?

So, Tampereen Teatteri will do Les Misérables in 2013, premiering on September 13th and 14th. The cast and details were released today. Let's take a look:

Jean Valjean: Tero Harjunniemi / Petja Lähde
Javert: Sören Lillkung
Fantine: Ele Millistfer
Cosette: Sarah Nedergård
Marius: Tomi Metsäketo
Éponine: Saara Lehtonen / Pia Piltz
Thénardier: Ville Majamaa
Madame Thénardier: Ritva Jalonen
Enjolras: Samuel Harjanne / Lauri Liiv

Director: Georg Malvius
Sets and costumes: Ellen Cairns
Choreography: Igor Barberic
Lights: Palle Palmé
Finnish translation: Jukka Virtanen

Cast with director and conductors

There's no need to go deep into what I think about the crew or the translation. I've already mentioned that here, here and here. (A select quote: "Nothing will stop my disappointment if the hideous translation is not fixed." Well. Yeah.

TT's version will truely be something of an ÅST replica. In short, I think Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Mis was practically perfect, but I would still have liked to see a new vision. Too bad for me. They said the new show will be "based on" the ÅST production and mentioned how much easier it was getting the rights from producer Cameron Mackintosh when they had a pre-existing concept. Sure, director Georg Malvius said the new actors will take their roles to new directions, and it was mentioned the show must be changed to fit to a stage different from ÅST's. But still. Anyway, you know what I think, I've talked about this in my speculations already.

Let's move on.

Today, in the press release event, theatre manager Reino Bragge mentioned something that caught my attention. He said local cinemas and Tampereen Teatteri will work together, what with the upcoming movie and this production, to bring "the Les Mis phenomenon" to Tampere.

ÅST alumni returns: Tomi Metsäketo and Samuel Harjanne

The Les Mis phenomenon?

From what I gather from today's info event, Tampereen Teatteri is trying to replicate a phenomenon indeed. Not a Les Mis related one, necessarily, but the one that's going on in Helsinki and goes by the name of Kristina från Duvemåla. Does the following sound familiar: five shows per week, pricier-than-usual tickets, subtitles in English, based on a former, popular production...

It seems to me Tampereen Teatteri is preparing for a success. They trust their show enough to rise prices above the ÅST levels. English subtitles seem like a clear sign they're trying to attract audiences even from outside of Finland.

But is Les Mis enough to draw in audiences from all over? I'm not sure. The theatre seems to have some pretty nice discounts for students (Hevijuuseri-kortti), so if they're compatible with Les Mis, it's likely I'll end up seeing it more than once. [Edited to add: of course the discount isn't compatible. That's student friendly policy for you!] But surely it's not enough that the Finnish Les Mis fandom (size approx. ten people) visits TT again and again.

Newcomers: Tero Harjunniemi and Petja Lähde will alternate in the main role

Let's remember the Les Misérables Åbo Svenska Teater staged that closed less than a year ago. It was the most popular show in the theatre's 170-year-long history. It's a small country, Finland, so a record like that isn't set with only Fennoswedish audiences. I suppose many people from all over Finland, probably also from Sweden, saw the show in Turku. Did they like what they saw enough to return for the exact same thing next year?

And with the upcoming movie and productions popping up all over Europe, I wonder if the English subtitles will have many users. How many travel to Tampere during the winter, anyway? Les Mis is not like Kristina in this respect. Les Mis has been done everywhere. Kristina, then, has been done only in Sweden before, and it's been a while since. Yet it's a national treasure to Swedes, and means a lot to many people with Swedish heritage all over the globe. Over a million people saw the show while it was performed in Sweden. What with ferries from Stockholm stopping at Helsinki every morning and night... Somehow, it's easy to see why Svenska Teatern's auditorium has been so full lately.

Javert and the conductor: it's Sören Lillkung's 3rd and Jussi Vahvaselkä's 2nd Les Mis

But Tampere? TT's Les Mis cast has some Estonian actors. Are there Estonians who are curious enough to travel to Finland for them? How about people from other countries? Every Nordic country has had their own version of Les Mis in the past few years. In 2014, Malvius will stage his vision for the 5th time, that time in Denmark. The original in London is going strong for the 27th year. Sure, some travel all around for their favourite shows. Personally, I love seeing and hearing musicals in foreign languages and have travelled for them. But how many think like me?

Then there's the upcoming movie. Soon, everyone will have Les Mis in their home town. It might encourage people to see the stage show. But it also rises the bar pretty high for TT, supposing the movie'll be good. I had a short chat with Tero Harjunniemi, who will play Valjean in TT. He said he's not scared of the movie setting expectations because theatre is such a different medium. True that – but wonder if the audience will still go in expecting to see a performance to match Hugh Jackman's instead of a Finnish actor's own vision? Anyway, I'm glad TT will at least replicate a stage show instead of trying to bring the movie onstage!

Cosette and the director: Sarah Nedergård and Georg Malvius


Personally, I would've preferred to see a different director and an all-new cast. But, if they had to replicate something and bring back some actors, I guess these were the best choices (and to be fully honest: in a way, it warms my heart to no end to see at least some of the ÅST cast I loved so so so so so much returning, even though I keep saying I'm all for new people in the roles. A small part of me keeps screaming about returning home and reliving the magic). TT's Les Mis will be unoriginal, but I feel it will also be good, just like it's predecessor. The translation notwithstanding... Theatre manager Bragge claimed some bits may still be fixed before the premiere. Can't but hope and pray, and on the meanwhile learn to not understand the Finnish language and only enjoy the voices.

But will TT's Les Misérables be interesting enough to bring "the Les Mis phenomenon" to Tampere? Time will tell, but I can't help feeling a bit sceptical.

Photos by Harri Hinkka and Muplakuovi.
Listen to Sören Lillkung sing Stars in Finnish.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Interview: Samuel Harjanne

It’s morning, I wake up in Vaasa, and I’m supposed to be doing an interview in a couple of hours. First, though, I open my e-mail. There’s a new message: “Could the interview be postponed by a couple of hours? Our matinee was cancelled, I could sleep for a while longer.” Well, that answers the first question in my mind. Samuel Harjanne does sleep – at least sometimes.

Striking 12, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri 2011.

Åbo Svenska Teater, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri, directing, winning a musical theatre prize… Samuel Harjanne has been busy lately. At the moment, Harjanne, known for his dubbing and musical roles, is performing in Wasa Teater’s Next to Normal.

“Wasa Teater is nice, but as a town, Vaasa isn’t one of the most interesting ones. I like a bit bigger cities. But you go anywhere for an interesting job. We have a lovely team, and Next to Normal is a good musical.”

24-year-old Harjanne has been performing for soon fifteen years. He’s done lots during his career, from a singing competition for children to directing musicals.

Before musicals, there was opera. Harjanne’s career started in a children’s choir. Via the choir, he got a part in The Magic Flute and ended up singing in Finland’s National Opera. But getting the part of Gavroche in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri’s 1999 production of Les Misérables was a turning point for him.

“After performing in the National Opera, I knew I liked operas a lot. Then Les Misérables auditions happened. I got in – and had a revelation. Theatre can be like this? Classical music is great, but pop and rock speak to me on a completely different level. Ever since, musical theatre has been really important to me.”

Next to Normal, Wasa Teater 2012. With Mikaela Tidermark.

Harjanne has acted in shows like Helsingin kaupunginteatteri’s High School Musicals and Spring Awakening, not to mention his countless Finnish dubbing roles in animated movies. However, during the last year, Harjanne has acted in two Swedish-speaking musicals. Two of the musicals he’s directed have also been, at least partially, in Swedish.

So, it’s surprising to hear Harjanne was not interested in the language at school. Actually, he says he hated it. He’s learned Swedish during the past few years.

In 2009, Harjanne was asked to direct the musical The Wedding Singer, in Swedish. He said that no way, you’ve called the wrong person, I can’t speak Swedish – and agreed to do the project nevertheless. He’d use English.
Around the same time, colleague Sören Lillkung told Harjanne to audition for Les Misérables again, this time in Åbo Svenska Teater. Harjanne was again skeptical, but agreed to try his luck.

”I sung Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and Your Song. Your Song is a pretty long tune, but I got to sing the whole thing… while director Georg Malvius was staring out of the window. I thought that I sucked. But soon, Malvius called me. I got the part of Feuilly and the understudy for Enjolras. The catch was that I should be able to understand the direction in Swedish.”

With two Swedish projects in sight, Harjanne started learning the language. He took lessons and told the fellow cast members to talk to him in Swedish.

“It made me very quiet. I’m usually very social, but I couldn’t keep up with the Swedish conversation.”

However, Harjanne’s language skills developed. After Les Mis, he was asked to do Next to Normal in Vaasa. The theatrical production company Polar Illusions, which Harjanne is the Head of Arts of, has also helped. The company put up a bilingual Finnish/Swedish production of Disney’s Aladdin last summer.

“The Swedish language has jumped into my life, and I’m glad about that. Nowadays I can have discussions in Swedish, and that’s amazing!”

Spring Awakening, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri 2009. With Teemu Mustonen.

When asked about his most embarrassing moment onstage… There isn’t one, really. Harjanne says he doesn’t get embarrassed easily.

“A blooper is a gift, that’s my advice about acting. But well, in Next to Normal once, I said complete nonsense instead of my line. Since I don’t have improvisation skills in Swedish… Luckily, Mikaela Tidermark just kept going. That was difficult. But usually, I don’t get embarrassed. Some people think it’s embarrassing if you stumble onstage. I think it’s just a part of the act.”

Harjanne has acted in one of the most famous musicals based on a book, Les Misérables. Next, he will be tackling an ensemble part in Jekyll & Hyde. Has he read the books the shows are based on?

“I started reading Les Misérables after playing Gavroche, but I never finished it. When I read books, my imagination starts flying… Then I notice ten pages have passed and I don’t know what has happened. It’s annoying. Maybe I’ll read Jekyll and Hyde, though!”

Harjanne thinks musicals and books are very different, so going by the original book isn’t a priority for him.

“When creating a character, I first think how I see the character myself. Then I find out what other people think. The most important thing is how the other characters in the script react to the character. So, I’m not interested in how the character is portrayed in the book. The director’s vision may differ from that. In a worst-case scenario, the facts from the book just mess with you.”

How about favourite roles? Harjanne mentions dubbing the title character of The Adventures of Tintin.

“It was really interesting, such a great role. I read the comics a lot as a kid. I outdid myself so many times while I was acting the part.”

When it comes to onstage parts:

“Enjolras is an interesting role to do. He’s a lot like me, I’m a leader type of a person too. And passionate. But I also liked Spring Awakening, High School Musical… All my roles, actually. Henry, the role I’m doing now, is maybe the least colourful one I’ve done. He’s pretty much only a support to his girlfriend. Then again, he’s the only positive character in the whole show.”

Next to Normal, Wasa Teater 2012. Again with Mikaela Tidermark.

Harjanne has done so many dubs and musicals that one might imagine he never sleeps. He admits that he does lots of work. If he has free time, he spends it by playing badminton, watching movies – and going to the theatre. Traveling is also important to him.

“I leave the country whenever I can. It’s amazing just to relax.”

Next to Normal will close in December. After that, as mentioned, Harjanne will be seen onstage at Turun kaupunginteatteri's production of Jekyll & Hyde. He’s a part of the show's ensemble and understudy for Riku Nieminen, who plays the titular part.

“It’s nice to do an ensemble role again. Many think a main role is better than ensemble, but that’s silly. Without ensemble, the piece doesn’t work. As for the title role, I figure I’m very young for the part. But it’s amazing to study such a huge role at this age. I will learn a lot. I haven’t got time to go to schools right now, so this is the way I learn.”

Polar Illusions will stay an important part of Harjanne’s life. There are lots of plans. For example, they’re working on doing Aladdin in some other country than Finland. Harjanne wouldn’t say no to working in foreign countries in other projects, either.

Jekyll & Hyde, then, will only employ Harjanne for a limited time. The production will go on for a longer time, but Harjanne leaves Turku after the spring’s last performance. He won’t yet reveal what he’s going to do after that.

But the grand plan for the future is clear:

“I know I will work with musical theatre all my life.”

Photos by Ville Akseli Juurikkala and
Frank A. Unger. I tried taking my own – and of course messed royally with the camera, ending up with only lots of blur. Boo.
Related: my reviews about Striking 12, Aladdin, WT Next to Normal.

I've also published a version of this interview in Finnish.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rent Scenarios

This post will be a bit different from my usual reviews and complaints. If you're not interested in Rent and what-if scenarios, skip this one! This is just my little analysis on some aspects of the show. Will contain spoilers.

Ever since I saw Rent in Alexander Theatre two weeks ago, I've been wondering: what's wrong with Rent's plot, actually? I like many shows that lack something when it comes to the story, shows that have a silly plot, shows that hardly have a plot at all. Why does Rent, with its story about love, annoy me so much?

Well, something about the naivete of the whole thing bugs me. As I've mentioned previously, I think the show gets better if the production kills Mimi in the end. I've had the luck of seeing a production that made that choice once, and it improved the whole thing. The no day but today message – that's usually chanted for two hours straight but doesn't really mean anything since returning from the dead is apparently possible – gained an actual meaning for once.

But I guess that's not all that could be fixed.
I wonder if Rent would be better if either Roger or Collins didn't have HIV/AIDS.

Petrus Kähkönen as Roger in Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble's production.

Let's discuss Roger first.
He has a song – one of the best musical songs of all times, if you ask me – about how the disease has destroyed his dreams. He has a scenes with other characters where they discuss his illness. He takes his medicine, he has that little moment when he sings along the Life Support group...
But still, not once have I felt he's really suffering from something severe and incurable.

Maybe this has to do with people responsible for the productions I've seen. Maybe they didn't know how to make it work. But a part of it, I think, lies within the script. It never shows him suffering. It's Mimi who's getting pale and thin, Roger's still healthy. Even though that's completely possible when it comes to real HIV-posive people, it's not very effective in a story.
The song Another Day is problematic. What does Roger mean by it? I'm under the impression that Roger pushes Mimi away because of his HIV, since he doesn't know she has it too. Maybe he's afraid of relationships and doesn't want that Mimi destroys him inside like April did. But he also doesn't want Mimi to get the disease, he doesn't want that Mimi breaks her heart when he dies. Or that's how I see it.
So, how does an another day fit to this? With an incurable disease, there won't be a day when those things aren't relevant anymore. Is Roger lying to himself and trying to assure himself that his nightmare will end one day? Or is this just bad thinking on the composer's part?

One thing would be changing the plot so Roger's disease is more visible. But what would happen if he didn't have it at all?

It'd add a whole new layer of problems to the plot, which could be interesting. How could Roger and Mimi be together if only one of them had a sexually transmitted, fatal disease? It's a difficult scenario, but it could add some realism to the show.
It should be noted Mimi already doesn't care. In her song Out Tonight, she tries to seduce Roger, unaware of him having the disease too. The show doesn't bluntly state Mimi's goal is to sleep with Roger, but one could pretty easily interpret the scene like that. What's more, dating an HIV-positive person course doesn't mean you'll automatically become HIV-positive yourself. Copypasting from Condoms are not 100% safe, but if used properly, will reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. The audience knows this, and maybe the characters also do: Benny isn't HIV-positive (or at least it's not mentioned) but the show still implies he and Mimi have been together. It's almost as if the show doesn't care either...
If Roger didn't have the illness, it'd add an element of but-what-if-he-gets-it-too to his relationship with Mimi – would that make it unrealistic? Or more interesting?

In short, I feel it could be more realistic and closer to the source material (Puccini's La bohème) to have Roger not have HIV. It'd add more reason to him avoiding Mimi during the course of the show. He knows she will, eventually, break his heart like April did, he's afraid he will catch the disease too... It'd make Roger's selfishness more real and his motivations clearer.

Of course, curing Roger would change his character, and that's quite problematic.
It might be I've never felt he's dying, but that's still important in the script. One Song Glory, Another Day... You'd need a new way to justify these songs. Maybe only April got the disease, and her death alone impacted him so much he became severely depressed and started shielding himself from the world? That might justify Another Day but doesn't work with One Song Glory. I don't know if I'd be okay with my favourite song being removed from the show, even if it was for the greater good...
More importantly, the show would need a new way to get Mimi and Roger together, to show their love is stronger than his fear of the disease. Might add to the naivete part of things.

Maybe the disease is too important to Roger's character to have him cured.

Jyri Numminen as Angel and Mikael Haavisto as Collins
in Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble's production.
But let's not forget Collins.

Collins and Angel are a bit more minor characters. Both get solos, but where One Song Glory, Out Tonight, Another Day and other Mimi and Roger songs tell about their feelings and characters, Collins's and Angel's songs are a bit more vague. We don't know as much about their lives, other than what they feel for each other. Therefore, with them, maybe it wouldn't be necessary to go too deep into the what-if-he-gets-it-too element of the thing. That's their problem, our problem is Collins's pain when he loses Angel. Besides, do we ever worry about Rodolfo from La bohème or Christian from Moulin Rouge! catching tuberculosis, even though they're very likely to?
In a nutshell, I feel Collins's disease is nothing more than a plot device to remove the problems of him and Angel getting together. He refers to having it once, and that's the end of that. Unlike Roger, curing Collins wouldn't change his character.

I think making Collins HIV-negative would make his and Angel's story even more effective. Now, when they enter each other's lives, either of them could die first. Basically, just like any other relationship, though dying is closer to them than average young couples. Making Collins healthy would mean he knows Angel will die first, and soon. Unlike Roger, who would be afraid for his own safety and his own heart, Collins would go into the relationship nevertheless. Sugary and romantic, sure, but it'd also add a heartbreaking undertone to their story from the first minute. Even though theirs is the happiest of them all in the whole show.
Seriously, why isn't this a thing?

Do you have any thoughts about these scenarios? I'm curious to hear other opinions!

Photos from Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble ry's production.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Not Gonna Pay

I've talked about my relationship with Rent before. In a nutshell: when I think about the show with sense and logic, I hate it like burning. But when I see the show live, there's usually something that lifts me up. My brain says it's bad, but I tend to end up having a good time nevertheless.
However, seeing the production directed by Marco Bjurström that premiered in Alexander Theatre last week... I'm afraid I've reached a magical point (of no return?): I didn't enjoy myself like before anymore. I felt, mostly, nothing.

Maybe I'm just fed up. Or maybe it's my I dislike towards the material speaking. I adore how clever an adaptation of La bohème Rent is, and the songs are mostly great, but some parts of the story don't fly with me. After my last rant, I've realised I side with the wrong character: Benny. I don't really see what's so evil about his studio plans. Frankly, I'd like to work there.
But disagreeing with the characters doesn't automatically mean anything. I think I would have liked this production a lot better if it had been more innovative. The direction resembled the Broadway production. That's good if you love that production. I don't. And since we can all buy the DVD of the final performance, what's the point of showing us the same thing? Last year in Lahti, Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble ry changed the ending a notch darker, removed the song that grates the most, switched scenes around a little bit, and boom, twice better than the Broadway DVD. This production, then, went through the whole Broadway routine – and felt like something I've already seen.

As is, I feel the show only reached its full potential during the last fifteen minutes. What You Own, sung by Heikki Mäkäräinen (Mark, reprising his role from the aforementioned Musiikkiteatteriensemble production, great job again) and Raine Heiskanen (Roger) was the turning point for me: they sung with huge energy, I suddenly felt the show is amazing. Too bad the moment came an act too late.
Nevertheless, I thought the actors did a good job overall. Apart from Mäkäräinen, I liked Ilari Hämäläinen as Benny and Sanna Parviainen as Maureen the most. The former avoided the trap of portraying the character as a jerk and did a great job with his few sung bits. The latter sparkled with energy and attitude, just like Maureen should.
When it comes to character chemistry, I think there was some in between Maureen and Joanne and maybe also Angel and Collins, but not too much in between Mimi and Roger. While Mira Luoti was a cute, vulnerable Mimi, I don't think she and Roger seemed too infatuated with each other. Another Day seemed angry on everybody's part.

Not amused by your accusations of lacking character chemistry.

The production looked, set-wise, just like every other Rent I've seen.
The scaffoldings and industrial tables on wheels aren't pretty, but they do what they're supposed to and give the events a backdrop. Maybe you shouldn't fix what's broken. They're one of musical theatre's omnipresent things: Phantom and the chandelier, Les Mis and the barricade, Rent and the scaffoldings. But why are they so holy they never seem to get replaced? It'd be refreshing to see something different. The sets were designed by Bjurström and Heiskanen, the director and one of the leads. Maybe they had too much else on their minds to start reinventing.

The costumes by Jarkko Valtee, then, had undergone some chances from the traditional. Mostly, it was okay – losing the most stereotypical 90s costumes might not be period-accurate, but 90s fashion also looks pretty silly, so...
There was one costume change above the others: they had completely redone Angel's wardrobe. An artistic drag queen, you can do lots with her, so I tip my hat to this production completely changing things. Too bad I also hated said changes. Little panties, crop tops, a green mohawk... She looked less like a drag queen, more like the guys from Blades of Glory. Except for way more naked. I think it's easier to see Angel as the heart of the story she's supposed to be if her outfits don't make me gape for all the wrong reasons (though what do I know – maybe I'm alone and everyone else found her gorgeous).
To nitpick further, it bothered me that some characters were wearing such skimpy clothing, tiny tops and fishnet stockings, without a jacket. The show takes place on Christmas Eve, for heaven's sake!

Then there's the case of Sami Parkkinen's translation.
I stand in awe.
I don't remember hearing a Finnish translation that fails at resembling the original text and rhyming and rythm. Glad life's full of surprises and I got to experience this. If I was rolling my eyes in my seat, which I know I was – actors, please don't think it was because I thought you were so bad. You weren't, it was the words you sung... Ilona Kangas of Turun Sanomat says, in her review, that "Sami Parkkinen has made a new Finnish translation and done it well." I guess you can have many different opinions about this translation, then, but I'm afraid I can't understand Kangas's. Sure, the translation had a couple of good moments, but I don't think that's enough to make up for the major clumsiness.
It annoys me to no end how they didn't use the translation from Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble's production. Jyri Numminen's version compromised a couple of rhymes too, I seem to recall, but it did that so much better. It got rid of American terms Finns might find hard to understand (for example, changed Labor Day to vappu/May Day), it flowed, it didn't make me cringe once. Why on earth use a new translation when it can't hold a candle to the previous one?

Oddly enough, even after all this, I can't call this a bad production of Rent. Everything but the translation worked okay, even if nothing was especially exciting. All the scenes were there, looking and sounding like you'd expect. The actors were good fits for their roles. I should mention that the rest of the audience, in the half-full auditorium, loved the show: the applause went on and on, culminating in a standing ovation.
In my opinion, this production simply lacked the creativity and heart to really lift it off the ground.

Photos by Lasse Lindqvist.