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.


  1. There are indeed many similarities to Les Mis, and those are mostly the features I'm not so fond of. Based on these two musicals and our opinions on them, I think we may have hit the heart of a crucial difference in our taste in musicals. ;) Perhaps also music-wise, because Chess practically sets my mind ablaze while Kristina is "only" very beautiful. I also have a bit the same with Chess as you have with Kristina: "the biggest solos didn't make me cry anymore – but everything in between did". So clearly there's some tendency towards that in B&B's music.

    If the tickets were any cheaper, I could go and see the musical again, but I'm such a story-centered viewer that with these prices I won't pay to see it again. Maria Ylipää finally impressed me, though, and the whole cast was mind-blowingly good. I have a feeling that my biggest problem with the musical might be Lars Rudolfsson, so if there ever is a Finnish production, I'd be happy to see a new director do the job (with cuts in the libretto, please).

    Thanks for the link, btw!

    1. Heh, yeah... It's good that we both at least like Tanz der Vampire - otherwise, we probably would be mortal musical fandom enemies. ;D

      And no problem!

  2. This is a very interesting review, and one I mostly agree with. I saw this production last week and I loved it. I do not speak Swedish, so I had to use the translator, which did affect enjoyment of the show somewhat. But the music, the songs, and the voices all made up for it. The performances were spectacular. I also knew it was going to be long, which made me worried, but once it started I never felt like it was too long. Thanks for the nice review. I wish I could see it again.

    1. Thank you! :)
      I'm not very good at Swedish either, actually - but I overestimated my language skills and went without a translator. Maybe not the best idea: at times, I felt completely confused with the plot... But the second time I saw the show, I had listened to the CD so much I knew the lyrics by heart, so no problem there anymore!

      But thanks for your nice comment. Here's to hoping you'll get to see the show again one day!