Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Something Next to Normal

A word of warning for starters: written in white text, there are major spoilers for Next to Normal in this review. In my opinion, they will ruin your experience if you don't know the plot of the show. So, please, only highlight the invisible part if you have seen Next to Normal already. (Also, if you ask me, avoid reading the reviews in newspapers. The same spoiler appears there with no warnings.) Other than the white part, this should be safe to read.

Next to Normal is one of the musicals I can't decide whether to call my favourite or not.

In a way, Next to Normal is one of the best musicals of the recent years. With so many jukebox musicals and adaptations nowadays, it's very refreshing to see an original story. It's not an easy one, either: it's about a family struggling with mental ilness. A very interesting subject for a musical, I think.

Yet, I'm afraid every repeat viewing has further opened my eyes to see the weaknesses of the piece. I'm rather annoyed at its black-and-white view about whether to treat mental illnesses with medical science or therapy. The show definitely takes a side, and I think it tries to shove its opinions down our throats a bit too forcibly. Next to Normal also has a rather weak second act. The combination of the songs being less interesting and the action slowing down near the end is sure to make me yawn every time.

Still, I admire Next to Normal for its music (I can't stop looping the songs from the first act), and for telling a touching story with realistic, layered characters, especially the leading couple. It's not often you get all that in a single show. No wonder both Wasa Teater and Tampereen Työväen Teatteri stage Next this fall!

When it comes to the Wasa Teater version I just saw, my expectations were through the roof. Starring three people from my favourite musical cast of all times and, judging by photos and videos beforehand, looking visually so much better than the recent Helsingin kaupunginteatteri version... I was looking forward seeing a great production. And, for the most part, I got one.

Anna-Maria Hallgarn and Sören Lillkung made the two main roles feel very realistic and genuine (interesting that the male lead got the final bow at the curtain call, by the way – but with such a voice and performance, who am I to argue?). Furthermore, I don't think there was a single weak link in the remaining cast, composed of Johan Aspelin, Samuel Harjanne, Markus Lytts and Mikaela Tidermark. Add this one to the long list of Finnish productions I wish they would record a cast album of!

For the most part, I also enjoyed Victoria Brattström's directional choices. I think she seemed to have a very clear view of the story she's telling and the dynamics in between the characters. For example, the character of Natalie, who I found rather annoying in HKT, felt compelling and real to me here.

There's one very big but about me liking the direction, though, and here come the spoilers. Only highlight the following empty-looking space if you've seen some production of Next to Normal.

I didn't like what Wasa Teater's production did with the character of Gabe. 

I think Gabe's one of the most interesting musical theatre characters out there. It's intriguing how we don't really know what he is. A ghost? Diana's illusion? A physical manifestation of the whole family's suffering? All of these at once? It's up to each director, actor and member of the audience to find their own interpretation. However, not everyone has to agree with every idea, and I didn't agree with the director's here...

From the beginning on, Gabe felt rather unreal. If WT's Next was your first time seeing the show, let me know: did you suspect something was awry even before the truth was revealed? I thought that everything from Gabe's simple black clothing on hammered it in that he's different, and his discussions with his mother seemed like two adults speaking. Of course, it can be asked if the it's even important keeping the fact that Gabe isn't real concealed – but personally, I like it better when he seems like a real teenager.

The other thing I didn't like was the lack of physicality in Gabe. After seeing Tuukka Leppänen perform the role in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's production, with all that movement, jumping and running, aggression... This Gabe seemed very meek in comparison. HKT's Gabe kept looming in the background even when he didn't have a part in the scene, as a reminder that he's still there in Diana's mind. WT's Gabe kept disappearing. He didn't feel like a true threat to Diana at any point. Also, without any physical contact, his duet with his dad at the end felt rather empty. 

To me, Gabe is the main conflict keeping the show together, so it's a shame the character doesn't feel more interesting here. As far as the direction allowed him, though, Markus Lytts gave a good performance in the disappointing role. His I'm Alive/Jag är här is truely worth hearing. With different direction, I'm certain he would shine even brighter.

Enough of the negativity, since this is after all the better of the two Next to Normals I've seen so far...

One thing I liked was how the family seemed like people any of us could know. I think that's how the show's supposed to be like, that these events could happen to any family the audience knows. The decision to translate the family's name helped a lot. In retrospect, I think HKT's (and it seems, TTT's too) decision to keep the American names in the Finnish translation was rather alienating. The story felt lot more natural and hit closer to home when we were watching the Fennoswedish family Sundqvist that could just as well live next door to the theatre.

What's more, the little moments in between the characters felt very natural to me.
The moment in the beginning when Dan helps Diana to fix the salad and toast blew me away by taking the time it needed, by being so darn real. Other lovely little moments include the whole It's Gonna Be Good/Nu ska det bli bra scene with the hilarious cast interactions, and Natalie and Henry (or Henrik, he's been turned into a local too) playing snippets by the composers they mention during their banter in the first act. Kudos to Mikaela Tidermark for playing the piano herself!

All in all, even with the script's annoying bits and even with the choices I didn't agree with, I think Wasa Teater's Next to Normal is well worth seeing. The cast is talented and feels like a real family, and I wonder if the songs have ever sounded better. I'm considering taking another look at this before it closes in December.

Photos by Frank A. Unger.
Related: my thoughts about WT Next to Normal's cast before seeing the show.

See the opening scene from the show.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Return of the Replica

Keeping in mind it's now only a year to go until Les Misérables premieres in Tampereen Teatteri, I thought it's time to do some background research.

I of course knew that Georg Malvius, who directed Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Mis and will direct TT's, had done the show once before [edited to add: maybe twice? I found a mention about a production in Tallinn, but can't find any info about it]. Earlier, though, I didn't much care about that production. It was 2007, it was somewhere in German, it's not my problem...
But today, I figured that checking out how closely Malvius's Füssen production of the musical corresponds to ÅST's Les Mis might give me a hint at how closely TT's will, in turn, resemble ÅST.

So, I took a look.

Okay, to be fair, every Javert everywhere always looks the same.
Curiously, our Cosette inherited their Mme Thénardier's dress.

There is more, but on a site that doesn't permit copying their photos. If you want to see, follow the links to compare the Füssen set with the ÅST set. Or how about the white costumes the dead characters wore for the finale? Yep, old news.

Oooooh boy.
Remember me hating replicas for a full blog post earlier this year?
Yeah. My favourite production of all times just turned out to be one. 

I feel a bit – wonder if disappointed is the right word? Naturally, I assumed there were similarities in Malvius's previous work and ÅST Les Mis. And to be fair, the productions certainly aren't 100% the same, even when only judging by the photos. Seeing I can't find but one video from Füssen, I can't know if the acting choices were similar at all.
But still... I somehow imagined ÅST Les Mis was an original, something never seen before. How wrong I was. Many major motives I thought were unique to ÅST were actually repeats from the Füssen version. The tree that serves as a backdrop to every scene and becomes a part of the barricade. The little bridge on the right side of the stage. The doors with scenery in mock tile wall on the left. The doorways in mock stone wall on the right. The golden frames surrounding the stage. The white costumes for the dead characters. Even the colours of the lights during certain scenes...

All in all, I don't think this is very promising when you think about the upcoming TT production.

Again, this is pure speculation. But, looking at the two productions, it's impossible not to notice they're by the same creative team. For example: even when two versions of the same character's costume aren't exactly identical, Ellen Cairns's style is still so similar in both that you could swap the outfits without no one noticing.
There's been talk of the ÅST (and Füssen) Les Mis creative team being transported to TT as a whole, not just the director. I've no doubt they're all talented and versatile people. But still, I'm afraid the temptation to take the easiest route and do what was successful the previous two times is too strong.
We've heard the reasons. It was easier to get Cameron Mackintosh's blessing for the production by promising it'll be similar to the popular ÅST one. But still – I just hope they remember how small a country Finland is. When replicating, for a Finnish stage, an obscure German production that only ran for a month, chances are no one here has seen the original. But, as we know, Les Mis was ÅST's biggest success to date, there were certainly more than a handful of people who saw it. And Tampere is not that far from Turku...

TT Les Mis, please: surprise us.

Or at least fix the translation.
ÅST photos taken by Nana Simelius and Robert Seger. Füssen press photos from here, originally from All-in.de. Photos scanned from the newspaper by Jan van der Velden. Füssen barricade photo from here, Füssen Javert screencapped from here. As always, hover over the photos for specific info.
This site was a valuable source for this entry.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Kings' Speeches

The kings giving a speech: Charles Edwards on the left, Carl-Kristian Rundman on the right.

Last spring, I was lucky enough to see both the West End and Finnish versions of the play The King's Speech.
With musicals, it's surprisingly easy enough to see multiple versions of the same thing. Everyone (or at least several theatres in each of the Nordic countries) wants to have their own Les Mis, Next to Normal, Evita. You even have the term hit musical. Hit plays, on the other hand... Before this, I hadn't much considered seeing two productions of the same play. I had hardly considered seeing a straight play at all.
However, earlier this year, The King's Speech (or Kuninkaan puhe) premiered in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri. I saw it in April, and a month later, I found myself in London during the last week of performances of the West End version.

I consider The King's Speech, a real history based story about King George VI's struggle with stuttering and finding his place as the monarch of the Great Britain, a great story in any form. I loved the movie, just like the rest of the world did, and found the play just as good. I rarely cry while seeing musicals, even though most of the ones I enjoy are about dying and misery, but this play made me shed tears quite uncontrollably just when the curtain fell. In both countries.
I think the whole concept of royalty is interesting. How come it's possible that in 20th-century-and-onwards Europe, there remains a system where certain people officially have a certain stature just because they happen to be born to a certain family? I like how the play addresses those issues. Not to mention I think there's always something very interesting about stories that are based on real events.

Taking lessons. Jonathan Hyde and Charles Edwards on top, Pertti Sveholm and Carl-Kristian Rundman below.

I've been trying to make decisions (for the whole summer, it seems, since this post has been sitting in my drafts since May), but I don't think either of the casts I saw was stronger than the other. There were stronger individual performances, and maybe by mixing people from both you could have a sort of an ultimate cast – but as a whole, I enjoyed both casts about as much.

If I have to find differences, I think the Finnish one can boast a slightly stronger speech therapist Lionel Logue, portrayed by Pertti Sveholm. I thought his performance felt a tad more genuine than his British counterpart's, Jonathan Hyde's, though Hyde wasn't bad at all either.
There's a fun story relating to that bit of casting, though. The movie Titanic is one of my all-time favourites. So, you might've recognised the name and thought I was over the moon to see an actor who had a prominent role, as J. Bruce Ismay, in my favourite movie. Well, I'm sure I would've been – if I had known it was him! I simply didn't recognise Hyde onstage, nor did the name ring a bell. Back at hotel, I leafed through the programme and started thinking that no way, this says he was in Titanic, and he kind of looks like... could it be... I blame the lack of a moustache!

But resuming to the casts.
I'm afraid Vuokko Hovatta is one of those actors who simply annoy me, no matter the role. I've yet to see her in a part I'd honestly enjoy her in. True to my sentiments, I found her Elizabeth slightly annoying and lacking much emotion whatsoever. Therefore I enjoyed the British Elizabeth, Emma Fielding, better. Thinking about the other major female role – if we're being superficial, West End's Myrtle Logue, Charlotte Randle, seemed a bit too young to me. I don't know her actual age age, but she has such a young look I felt she could've almost been Jonathan Hyde's daughter. I preferred the Finnish version, with Eija Vilpas as Myrtle, since the couple seemed closer to each others' age. When it comes to actual performances, though, I think the both did a good job.
Continuing the nitpicks, I found the Charles Edwards's stutter, as King George VI (or Bertie), more believable than Carl-Kristian Rundman's. Then again, I don't really know anyone who suffers from stutter, not anyone Finnish nor anyone who speaks English. So who am I to judge? Other than that, I'm afraid I can't pick a favourite king, they both gave great performances.

Unlike the casts, the stagings differed a lot. Musicals, no matter if non-replica or not, tend to be staged a bit similarly everywhere. So, it was interesting to see how much the visions can vary when it comes to staging a play.
I think Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's big scene is simply too big. I think there's too much space even for the hugest productions, like Wicked. But here, for once, the emptiness worked for the piece's advantage. I felt the king's loneliness and helplessness more achingly when I saw him struggling to give a speech in the middle of the vast space. The West End stage, at Wyndham's Theatre, was a lot more intimate. While the smaller space usually felt better, and there was no need to keep ensemble howering awkwardly at the background just to fill the room, the extra space certainly added feeling to the speech and church scenes at Helsinki.
HKT solved some of the space problems by adding a sort of a smaller stage, that served as a room, in the corner of the stage. In Wyndham's Theatre, then, they had a turntable with a big wall that rotated when there was a change from one space to another. I have to give a nod to Logue's office in the West End, it looked way more cosy there!

Top, Michael Feast, Ian McNeice and David Killick as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Winston Churchill and Stanley Baldwin. Below, Rauno Ahonen and Jari Pehkonen as the Archbishop and Churchill.

Direction-wise, HKT's under Kari Heiskanen's helm and West End by Adrian Noble, there were of course differences. I think even the scripts differed a bit, in ways that can't be blamed for confusion in translation. For example, I seem to recall the scene where the leaders of the land discuss at the urinal had rather different lines depending on the country (also noteworthy: in Britain, the scene was not urinal-based). The West End version gave the Nazi threat more emphasis. 

All in all, and maybe not surprisingly, the British version felt a bit more reserved. I think one of the most interesting differences was at the very end of the play [here be spoilers!]. In the Finnish version, after the line Thank you... my friend, Bertie and Lionel hug. In the British one, there was just a handshake.
The hug seemed like a very natural ending to me, and I was a bit surprised the West End version didn't have that. I felt it lacked something. Then I started wondering... maybe there are still some taboos considering the royalty in the UK? After all, even as a Finn, it's quite impossible to imagine the Queen hugging anyone. I guess that, to us Finns, the piece plays as any piece of historical fiction – maybe based on real events, but still fictional. If it suits the characters, we think it's normal when the King of Great Britain and his best friend share a brohug. But maybe that's too unbelievable for the British, some of whom might consider this not yet fiction but still real history?
Or maybe I'm reading too much into this one little detail. After all, apparently you can have the King creatively and repeteadly use a variety swearwords in that one famous scene, no matter which country.

In the West End, I sat next to a very nice old lady. Upon seeing me wipe my tears after the show, she opened a conversation, and told me she remembers the time George VI was crowned. To me, a Finnish teenager, the events portrayed in the play are very distant. Events like the ones the play's about don't feel very real to me. I know they have happened, but somehow it's a bit hard to believe.
So, it was eye-opening to talk to someone to whom they're real memories from her own childhood. The lady told me she loves the movie and that she enjoyed the play a lot too. She was also a true royalist and expressed her sympathy when I mentioned us Finns only have presidents... So I suppose the historical characters and events have been treated with certain respect and style.

I'm always curious to observe the audience reactions. I've seen the play three times now, twice at home and once abroad. Out of these, the first Finnish one had a dead audience, the second Finnish set seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot, but the British were simply roaring with laughter. I think it's a national difference. I've a feeling it's a lot quieter in Finnish theatres, no matter which show.

At last, the triuphant speech. Charles Edwards on the left, Carl-Kristian Rundman on the right.

Finally, I want to tip my hat to the British production for starting to renovate their theatre at the time I visited. I had bought the cheapest, worst balcony seat. When climbing upstairs, I found out the balcony's under renovation, and got relocated in the best seats of the theatre, right in the middle of the royal circle!
That stroke of luck was like a cherry on top of a great experience. The King's Speech was, after all, the first West End play I've seen. I think I should see a straight play during every visit to London from now on! And when it comes to seeing straight plays in Finland, The King's Speech was also a bit of a first: it's the first play I've ever seen completely voluntarily, not for school credit or because someone invited me. I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did, and I'll definitely keep an eye out for interesting plays in the future.

Photos of the West End production from their website's gallery
Photos from the HKT production by Tapio Vanhatalo.