Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Two Quick Reviews: Dream-come-trues

This spring, two longtime musical dreams of mine have come true.
Whenever asked about musicals I'd like to see but haven't, Sweeney Todd and Hairspray have been on top of my list. Sweeney Todd because when it was released, I thought the Tim Burton movie was better than breathing, Hairspray because ever since watching the movie I've just had the feeling I'd enjoy it live (and since I was silly enough not to see it in West End when I had the chance, it has bothered me ever since).
In the past few weeks, I've seen both of my wishlist musicals live. Now, only give me Evita and Book of Mormon, and my life's about complete!

Sweeney Todd
12.5.2012, Adelphi Theatre, London 

Indeed, I used to be in love with the Sweeney Todd movie. It was, actually, my first touch to the death-and-sorrow sub-genre of musical theatre most of my favourites seem to be a part of. So genius! So dark and gruesome! So filled with Johnny Depp! I watched the movie three times during the premiere weekend and then all the time for quite some time. It's only natural I got so fed up with the film I didn't watch it for three years after the initial crush.
That, luckily, didn't stop me from being curious about the stage production, and I got a ticket. I knew a live Sweeney Todd would be very different from the movie Sweeney, so no disappointments there. After leaving the theatre, I had the feeling I had seen exactly what I was looking for: a prime example of a good production of Sweeney Todd.

As for Sweeney in general, I love the music to bits. But then there's the story.
There are musicals that are sad, like Next to Normal. There are musicals that are so sad it's ridiculous, like Les Mis. And then there's Sweeney Todd - a show so filled with sorrow, pain, blood, brooding and angst that you don't know what you should think about it. One man's vengeance towards the world via slitting the throats of barbershop customers and letting them be turned into pies... Well, I suppose that shouldn't be thought about too hard. I did that mistake during my fangirl days, and I can assure you: the plot holes are there, and there are plenty.
However, I think the production I saw had worked its way around the melodrama cleverly: it suggested the whole story is an exaggerated legend. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, heard in the beginning and end of the piece, looked like the ensemble was telling each other rumours they had heard. Sweeney Todd is so angsty and brooding, I hear he sings love songs to his razors. I think that makes perfect sense. The story of Sweeney Todd begun as an urban legend in the 19th century, and it was nice to see this production returning the tale to its roots.  

Michael Ball played the title role. I was of course curious to see him, him being the original Marius. I went to listen to an interview with him the previous day. It was exciting seeing the show, after hearing the lead tell how Sweeney's a dream role of his - and Ball didn't disappoint. If I hadn't know it's him, I'd never recognised this dark, depressed slayer as the sweet romantic student from the Les Mis anniversary concert!
Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett was just as amazing in her role as Michael Ball was in his. While her vocals weren't always perfect, she did the black comedy of the part perfect justice. I think I'm finally starting to understand why some people despise Helena Bonham Carter's take of the role.
Every role wasn't casted spot on, though. Lucy May Barker, who played Johanna, seemed to have difficulties with her songs, as if the role didn't really fit her voice. No wonder her solo has been cut off from the CD.

The show was, looks-wise, set in the 30's. I don't think I've seen a West End production where the text's time period and the looks of the thing don't match before, but I liked the visuals. One complaint, though. I've heard comments about the show being very bloody, but I'd like to disagree. You could hardly see the splatter high from the balcony where I sat. Being used to the Tim Burton movie, I guess I'd been happier with a little bit more gore...
But as a whole, a great show. My dad, who accompanied me, would like to agree: he only fell asleep once!

9.6.2012, Alexander Theatre, Helsinki

It's somewhat surprising I like Hairspray.
As said, out of the musicals I like, 90% have to do with murder, death and sorrow. Then there's this one, with cheerful tunes and a happy ending. How did that happen? I'm not sure, but I certainly enjoy listening to the movie soundtrack every now and then. The second act of the show drags a little, apart from the catchiest finale of any musical ever written, but I feel the first act is as good as they come.

Musical Theatre School Skene's production of Hairspray was, as said, my first live Hairsrpray, and I truely enjoyed the production. I went there with some prejudice, as I guess I always do with student productions. I know they can be good, and I know I'm being awful when I expect the worst - but a pessimist is never disappointed, right? I didn't expect seeing anything special, but it's always a pleasure being proven wrong in cases like this.
First of all, I loved that the piece didn't feel, in any way, simpler than a professional Hairspray would be. With the student version of RENT I saw some time ago, the director apparently didn't trust the skills of the young cast: she cut songs short and filled the stage with unnecessary action. Here, every scene was done, every line sung, nothing cut and no cheating. That's actually more than what can be said about some professional productions I've seen! The production also looked surprisingly good for an amateur show, with video screens and rather nice costumes.

The most important thing, of course, is the cast. I was amazed. Out of the whole cast, consisting of over thirty people, there were only one or two performances I didn't enjoy. And even them - I think they simply were on the skill level you'd expect of an amateur production, instead of shining the professional-like star quality some of their cast mates had.
I think a huge part of any show being enjoyable is whether the cast does what they do with enthusiasm or because they just happen to work there. Here, the energy and good mood was almost overwhelming in my row three seat! Every single step of the choreography was danced with a smile on the dancers' faces.

The translation, which I always pay some attention to, was inoffensive. Mikko Koivusalo's Finnish rendering got the point across, delivered the message - and lost all the clever bits of the original libretto along the way. That's still better than most of Finnish translations: this didn't make me shake my head in disbelief a single time. It's hard translating into Finnish, sometimes you simply have to accept things get lost.
One thing I wondered about, though, was Motormouth Maybelle's dialogue. She occasionally spoke in a very, very poor rhyme that made me cringe. Does she do this in the original?

In short, I feel this was a production worth seeing. It left me in a good mood (I caught myself dancing in my seat at least once during the show and felt rather embarrassed). They still have performances this week. So, if you're located near Helsinki and have nothing to do this week, I recommend!

Sweeney Todd photos from the production's photo gallery.

Hairspray photos by Lasse Lindqvist.


  1. I saw Hairspray in HKT in 2005 and, as surprising as it now is, enjoyed it. Like you, I'm usually into dark and somewhat intelligent musicals with very different music style, so I can't quite understand why I still like Hairspray's music. Perhaps it just fits my feelgood moments. I've not seen the movie and have no huge desire to see the musical again on stage, but I wouldn't object seeing it, either. Pity that I don't have time to see this new production.

    1. Hairspray: the mystical musical even people with the darkest tastes like? :D