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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hairy Noon and Night

When I want to see a musical, I don't let distance bother me. Six hours in train per day for a show isn't that bad. Honestly! But this fall, I've moved into a town with a couple of theatres that do musicals. One of them is called Åbo Svenska Teater. You might've heard me mention it here fleetingly once or twice.

So, of course I was there for Hair's premiere.

Beforehand, I was pretty sure I wouldn't like Hair. Hippies? 60s? Sounds like a bore, a nostalgia trip for people three times my age. I had to see it because, come on... it's in the theatre I spent so much time in during last year, Les Mis director Georg Malvius is directing, so on. But that doesn't mean I would much like the show.

After seeing the show, yes, it is a nostalgia trip for people three times my age. But! I also enjoyed myself enough to start thinking about when to the show the next time right after stepping out of the theatre.

Of the musicals I've seen, Hair strongly reminds me of Cats. Not because of the themes or the style of music, but because of the structure of the show. Hair, just like Cats, is a collection of scenes centered around the same theme and group of characters. I haven't seen many shows like this, and at first, I was a bit annoyed. Where's the story?

As the show progressed, I got more into it. Maybe it's sometimes nice not to force the events to follow a traditional story arc. I think, in this case, it worked better than a complicated story with these themes and songs would've.

From what I understand, different productions of Hair vary a lot script-wise, so I don't know if some of them are marginally more story-driven. Checking out the plot for the original stage show and the movie, ÅST's production seems to vaguely follow the film, while the one currently playing in Lahden kaupunginteatteri is closer to the original Broadway script. Hopefully I can see that one too and return to this.

When it comes to ÅST's Hair, there were scenes I didn't like. Most notable was the drug sequence during the first act. I suppose it's a good message to tell: doing drugs is hideously boring. No one's going to start because this musical made it seem exciting... That was the part of the show when I kept telling myself that yes, I was right, this is stupid. 

Luckily, I thoroughly enjoyed the second act. The story, the little of it you can find here, got a move on and I felt genuinely touched by it. Not to mention the amazing finale medley with all the best songs. I'm afraid that was my favourite part. It reminded me of Mamma Mia!, to have the show end with an encore like that – but is there something wrong with a simple feel-good moment every now and then? Without the cheerful ending, I'm afraid this would've left the audience in tears... There certainly was some darkness under the happy surface.

However, I must say that the issues the musical deals with felt a bit distant to me. The piece's clearly a product of its own time. So, maybe it should be thought of as a period piece instead of thinking about what, if anything, it tells about modern society. Maybe it's about hippies and that's about it. I mean, I enjoy Les Mis and Kristina från Duvemåla, even though I've never experienced poverty and famine. 

But still, with no complicated story, with all the hit songs, with so many references to 1960's (American) history... As mentioned, I feel this show is, first and foremost, a nostalgic musical for older folks. It doesn't necessarily stop the rest of us from enjoying it, I just think it should be noted. I gather Hair was a huge thing in the late 60s and early 70s. A part of the audience first saw it when they were young and the issues were relevant. I bet Hair will never mean the same to me as it does to them. For me, it's not about my past, it's about history.

But, like I keep repeating, I still enjoyed Hair. That's probably because the young cast is not affected by any 60s nostalgia either. There's an explosion of energy onstage. Once again, I have difficulty naming any weak links in the cast. Every performance seemed strong to me. I know I've said this about every show I've seen this fall, but I'm serious. (Hopefully there's some odd miscast in something I see soon. It would make my review look realistic for once.)

I loved most of the songs, I loved the performances. I was especially blown away by Filip Ohls's (Woof) rendition of Frank Mills. I believe the song is not usually given to this character, but who cares; the way he sung it, I think it's maybe the best musical song about unrequited love I've ever heard. Forget On My Own! Linus Fagerström's (Berger) version of Donna, then, has been playing in my head ever since the open rehearsal two weeks ago.

The visuals, by Ellen Cairns, were a slightly mixed bag. I liked the costumes and some of the sets, but I found for example the giant puppets pretty tacky, not to my tastes at all. Palle Palmé's lights, however, were beautiful all the way.

Finally, two thumbs up for the Finnish subtitles.

ÅST's Les Mis had the Finnish translation as subtitles. Translated librettos are of course meant to be sung and therefore aren't exact translations of the original lyrics. So, the Finnish text often had nothing to do with the sung Swedish. But now, the subtitles matched the Swedish lyrics pretty perfectly. Weirdly, the programme claims they're based on the Finnish libretto, but I think they fit way too well for that be true. In any case, this is the way subtitles should be. Understanding the Swedish lyrics partially, I could check out the parts I didn't get and see the exact Finnish equivalent instead of having to think that huh, how does that match the previous sentence... Good!

All in all, I'd recommend seeing this show, even if it doesn't hold any nostalgic value to you. You'll get two hours filled with great songs and very energetic performances. That made at least me leave the theatre feeling twice as cheerful as I was when entering.

Photos by Robert Seger.
See a sneak peek of the show.
The day I finally manage to write a whole musical review without referring to Les Misérables once, I shall reward myself by buying some Hair tickets. If the show is still playing on that extraordinary day, that is.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Duvemåla's Kristina

It's an adaptation based on a classic novel a whole nation adores. It's a huge mammoth of a musical: very long, sung-through, lots of characters. It's confusing. It's filled with show-stopping numbers that literally make the show screech to a halt for five minutes just so we can admire the lead's vocals. At times, it seems like it's constructed to force tears and sadness out of you. I know that there's a lot to fix when it comes to the structure of the piece... But I'm afraid I've hardly ever enjoyed a show this much.

And, for once, I'm not talking about Les Misérables.

Everybody should go see Svenska Teatern's production of Kristina från Duvemåla.

Kristina från Duvemåla tells a story about a group of Swedish people emigrating to the USA in the 19th century. It deals with heavy themes: the decision to move to another country and abandon your old live forever can't be an easy one, and the musical touches issues like death and religion, dreams and love. It's also wildly popular. Performances keep going until next spring, and they're practically all sold out already.

The musical is based on Vilhelm Moberg's The Emigrants series, and I've never seen a musical adaptation this true to its source material. Of course, I read the Finnish translations of the books, but I was still amazed by how closely the dialogue sometimes corresponds with the libretto. Especially the first two books of the series seemed to translate from page to stage without changing a word.

I admire the close accuracy whenever it works, and there are moments when it does, but it's also a problem. I think the books were great reads, but that doesn't mean there aren't any problems in them. Instead of fixing the books' odd bits, though, the musical amplifies them. Moments that are explained badly in the books aren't explained at all in the musical, and following the books too closely results in pretty clumsy storytelling.

For example, there's a scene where the audience meets the young farmhand Arvid for the first time, as he talks with his friend Robert: I'm-going-to-kill-the-old-woman-she-claims-I'm-a-zoophile-no-don't-do-that-dear-friend-I'll-read-to-you-about-rice-and-we-shall-move-to-America-wait-what? The first half of the scene is never mentioned again. The show has some way too fast-paced scenes that are lifted straight from the book. The details originally spread across dozens of pages get crammed into thirty seconds.

The first time I saw Kristina, I was convinced it should get shortened. I'm not so sure anymore, personal preference is overriding sense: I've started to enjoy every overlong minute. But, even so, I probably wouldn't throw a fit over a couple of cuts. There are some things I wish future productions would get rid of.

First, there's the tacky Jesus vision that one of the side characters has. The show's relationship with religion is convoluted enough [Laura talked about this in her Finnish review, check her text out if you know the language] – a campy, glittering Jesus doesn't really make things better. Then there's the very first scene. After the overture, we're shown an old man who has broken his leg, and his son who swears he can take care of the farm. This is one of the worst beginnings for a musical I can recall. It doesn't feel interesting, doesn't introduce us to the title character and has little relevance to the rest of the plot. Why start the show with a character we only meet twice during the following three hours? I think the overture should lead straight into Duvemåla hage, and Karl Oskar telling his bride "the farm is mine, Kristina" would be quite enough background. The very end of the second act also introduces a confusing plot point the show could very well do without.

It would seem natural I'd hate the show, with this many gripes... But that's not how it is. Even with all this, I love Kristina. I don't know if this love will last, but at the moment, it's one of my top five favourite musicals of all times.

As implied earlier, I think Kristina is closely related to Les Misérables. I seem to have a tendency to like musicals like this, ones where bodycount rises, ones that are long and heavy with strong themes. First time watching, both Les Mis and Kristina left me with the same confused feeling: I had a good time, but have no idea what happened there. And still, the performances elevated me. Every time I see these shows, they make me feel lighter, just overall better. They make me enjoy myself.

My reaction to Kristina is quite carthartic. I don't necessarily relate with all the themes the musical deals with, but it still fills me with feelings. I don't cry easily when seeing musicals, but the first time I heard Maria Ylipää sing Du måste finnas, I wept for the next five minutes. Second time watching, the biggest solos didn't make me cry anymore – but everything in between did. I tend to take constant mental notes even during shows I really like, it's hard for me to turn the little critical voice in my head off. So it's fantastic to find a show that lets me forget that from time to time.

The music, by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, is gorgeous. I like ABBA songs, but I admit I've never been that into Chess, the duo's other musical (might help if I saw it live, though). But here, I can't get enough of the tunes. Kristina has some of the very best music I've ever heard. It's hard to explain why, it just works for me. If you find the tickets too pricey for you – which wouldn't be surprising, this is the most expensive musical in the whole country – at least find the original cast recording and take a listen.

Not to say seeing the show isn't worth it, though. Svenska Teatern's Kristina joins my mental list of perfect musical casts. It's as if these roles and people were made for each other. There isn't a single weak link. I feel it's useless to go into more depth; I would just mention names and yell "PERFECTION" after each one.

The show also looks good. Judging from the photos I've seen from the Swedish original production, Svenska Teatern's version looks very similar to it, set-wise. The replica strikes, yet again... Luckily, the sets they've copied look great. The staging is pretty minimalistic, and it works. You don't have to show a lot to show exactly where the events are happening. In the first performance I saw, the audience was truely pleased with the visuals: one of the set changes resulted in an applause.


There are dozens of things to fix in Kristina från Duvemåla when I think about it with sense. But when feelings come into play... If a show can make me feel as strongly as Kristina did, it has done more right than wrong.

Photos by Cata Portin.
See the trailer of the production.