Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Helan går och heja Sverige!

Please note: I saw this play for free on the courtesy of Tampereen Teatteri.

This is one of the moments when writing a blog mostly about Finnish theatre in English feels especially silly. How do I even begin explaining this one to non-Finns?

The stereotypical Finn is jealous of the stereotypical Swede. They have everything better than us. They are happier, they always win the Eurovision song contest, they're not shy and depressed like we are. Unlike us, they discuss their feelings. Their summers are longer and sunnier than ours. We laugh at the Swedish, we tell mean jokes about them, we celebrate in the streets whenever we beat them in ice hockey – and we wish we were them. They even have that nice royal family instead of boring presidents!

In Miikka Nousiainen's book Vadelmavenepakolainen, and now in Tampereen Teatteri's play of the same name, Mikko Virtanen has a problem. On the outside, he is like any other Finnish man, born and raised in the Finnish town of Kouvola. But on the inside, he doesn't just wish he was Swedish. He is Swedish. Virtanen feels he's born to the wrong nationality and is willing to go to desperate measures to reach his impossible goal: to become a native Swede. Soon enough the lines between legal and illegal, moral and inmoral, mean nothing anymore...

An example of an idyllic Swedish family.

The play, directed by Pentti Kotkaniemi, obviously poked fun at the stereotypes we Finns have of Swedes, but also the stereotypes we have of ourselves, and the differences (both imagined and real) of the two nations. It's also a story of a person trying to be something he can't be. What's more, it's hilarious. I mostly watch musicals, the type where you wallow in tears. So, I don't even remember laughing this hard while watching theatre...

Having read Nousiainen's book, I was interested to see how it'd work onstage – and happy to see it worked well. I actually liked the play a bit better than the book.

I thought the book's pace was too slow, but the stage version fixed that. What's more, the main character's creepy and sympathetic sides were balanced better than in the book, the extreme lenghts he went to make his Swedish dream come true felt somewhat more effective onstage. I also liked the vague onstage ending slightly better than the book's more in-your-face grass is always greener elsewhere lesson. The play was, overall, a bit lighter than the book. Since the subject matter is so ridiculous, I think it was a good direction to go.

However, the play had a few moments where it tried too hard to make the audience laugh. I admit, I laughed at some of those bits anyway. But maybe giving the audience some time to breathe with a quiet moment or two wouldn't have felt out of place, even if it's a comedy. Or maybe a two-hour-long joke about Swedes is simply too long to be genuinely funny all the time, no matter how Finnish you are? But for the most part, the outrageous comedy worked. You can't be too serious about a story like this.

The play had around 60 characters and six actors portraying them.  

Miska Kaukonen played the central character of Mikko Virtanen. Since the story is so strongly about this one character and consists largely of his monologues, it's important he's performed well. Luckily, Kaukonen portrayed the part pretty perfectly. You never lost interest in Virtanen's story and even symphatised with and rooted for him – even though his creepy side was also evident... I especially enjoyed the bits during the second act where Virtanen's Finnish background started to show through the Swedish facade.

The rest of the cast (Linda Wiklund, Risto Korhonen, Ville Majamaa, Elisa Piispanen, Kai Bäckström, accompanied by musician Jukka Hänninen / Arto Piispanen) did a good job, too, quickly switching in between dozens of characters. Risto Korhonen was especially memorable in his parts. No matter if he played a Christmas elf or a cat, he never failed to make me laugh. Judging by the audience reactions, I wasn't the only fan of his performances.

All in all... A couple of days after seeing Vadelmavenepakolainen, I burst out laughing while brushing my teeth just because I remembered one of the jokes. So, if you're in need of some laughter, maybe consider seeing this one. Worked for me!

Photos by Harri Hinkka / Tampereen Teatteri.
Joskus sitä ihan tosissaan miettii, että pitäisi vaihtaa kieltä... No, saavatpa ainakin blogiin mahdollisesti eksyvät ruotsalaiset tietää, mille Suomessa nauretaan.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Upcoming in Turku

My yesterday was all about Turku-based musicals. Besides hearing the first sneak peeks of Jekyll & Hyde the musical, I've found out about two other upcoming shows...

Jennie Storbacka and Anna Victoria Eriksson singing In His Eyes
First, I attended the press info and open house events for Turun kaupunginteatteri's spring 2013 season. (The press info was a rather exciting: there was a power outage during it.) Among the premieres is the first Finnish production of Jekyll & Hyde. 

I of course knew J&H is coming to town, but that's about it. I don't know much anything about the musical personally. Everyone knows the basics of the story, of course – but maybe, for the Finnish readers, Laura's article about the previous press info would be a good place to go if you want to learn about the musical adaptation in particular. I don't think it's useful to repeat Laura's text here – the info I attended didn't add much to her article. So maybe check it out first.

Riku Nieminen singing This Is the Moment
In the info, director Tuomas Parkkinen talked a bit about the theme of Jekyll & Hyde. He said it's been startling to work on the piece, remembering the inexplicably cruel crimes that have happened around the world lately. He mentioned how they decided to do the show years ago just because they had the right feeling about it, but how the musical, with its themes of good and evil, has started to feel very current to him now. He also said he thinks the piece handles its central theme of evil well.

Riku Nieminen, who plays the main role, was also present in the event. Parkkinen mentioned how he thinks Nieminen is one of the most talented actors of his generation and how he couldn't imagine anyone else in the role of Jekyll and Hyde. Nieminen himself said he feels his first lead role in a musical is, besides a huge challenge, a dream role.

Personally, I've been a bit wary of Nieminen as Jekyll/Hyde. Since I've only seen him do completely different sort of stuff before, I've had some doubts. But the press info calmed me down a bit: Nieminen also sung a bit from the show, and, in my opinion, he was rather good. You can decide for yourselves, though – here's my sad little recording of his rendition of Alkuun / The Way Back:

In the open house event in the evening, they sung more J&H songs. Besides This Is the Moment from Nieminen, I heard the female leads Jennie Storbacka and Anna Victoria Eriksson sung In His Eyes. I think they both sounded fantastic. The Finnish translation, then, seemed inoffensive – not especially good, but I don't feel like sending hate mail to everyone responsible, either. All in all, I'm getting excited about this!

But, as mentioned, Jekyll & Hyde wasn't the only big thing yesterday. Here are some pieces of news I also encountered, one after another:
Wow! I live in Turku at the moment, and it seems I'll be having fun in theatre for the next year or two!

 Firstly, Jesus Christ Superstar. In a Radio Vega's interview back in October, Les Misérables' director Georg Malvius mentioned Åbo Svenska Teater was considering doing JCS instead of Les Mis in 2010. So, I admit I've been wondering, ever since seeing the theatre's newest audition announcement, if it'll be JCS... I even admit I've been ranting to my friends about wanting ÅST to do this very show and who I'd like to see in the cast (let's be extra-honest: I admit these rants have been accompanied with a mad gleam in my eyes).

And yes! They'll really stage one of my favourite musicals! I love Jesus Christ Superstar. It's obvious the story is strong, and the score has some of my absolute favourite musical theatre songs. If I have to mention negatives, I don't like how it's such a sausage fest of a show, with a grand total of one female role – but remembering the source material, that can't really be helped. Well, I'd be more than okay with a female Herod, but I only know of one production where that has happened...

I've only seen the piece in concert form before. Since the brilliant Lahti concerts, I've been wishing to see a staged version of the show. It seems like an easy piece to do very wrong but an amazing one if done right.

So, my hopes are high and I'm feeling positive. I suppose the biggest problem, for me, is not going insane before the announce the cast. ÅST people, if you're reading this: this time, no hiding the cast until there's only a few months to go, like you did with Hair? Pretty please?

And must not forget Rocky Horror Show. I don't have much to say about that one – I've just been wanting to see it live for a while, so this is exciting news too. I doubt it'll become one of my absolute favourite musicals, it seems a bit too crazy for that, but I bet it'll be plenty of fun if watched in the right mood.

I can't but hope they'll go for a new translation, though. You can listen to a sample from the Finnish cast recording here – and if you're fortunate enough to understand Finnish, you'll soon understand why this translation won't do... It might be a crazy show, but the translation could still, ideally, make some slight amount of sense. (Can't help being quite pessimistic about anything happening to it, though.)

I'm actually surprised that three as interesting musicals as these are happening in one town almost at the same time. Sure, both Jesus Christ Superstar and Rocky Horror Show are nostalgia trips to some, but I think young people can also enjoy this repertoire. I'm glad no theatre in Turku is doing a classic in the vein of Fiddler on the Roof just to amuse the little old ladies. At least in the near future.  

Sources: Musikaalit-foorumi, MusikalNet at FB.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Versus Musical

This is a companion article to my previous rant about the importance of actors' looks in musical. I swear this applies to other shows than Les Mis. It's just, again, the easiest example for me to use.

I've been thinking about musicals based on something for quite a while. When you've doing a show that's based on a book or a movie, how much do you owe to the original? I discussed the looks of the characters already, but how about the personalities? Should your characters act like the original author wrote them, or do you, as a director or an actor, have the right to twist them to suit what you think serves the musical the best? Can you come up with your own backstory and ignore the source material?

Let's talk about Enjolras.

You know the guy.

I think Enjolras is one of the best exaples for this. Sometimes it's almost impossible to make the character in the musical to match the character in the source material (case in point: Wicked the musical vs. Wicked the book). But when it comes to Enjolras... There's room for interpretation since there's hardly anything about him in the stage show. We know he leads a revolution, we know he doesn't much care about Marius's lonely soul, and that's about it. The details in between can be done in a multitude of ways. You can take your inspiration from the book or come up with your own version.

There seems to be something of a consensus in the Les Misérables fandom that, when it comes to Enjolrati, David Thaxton is the best. It's been said over and over again how his Enjolras was as close to the guy from the book as possible. Personally, I can't comment – though I saw Thaxton live, I don't remember him, and I'm afraid I don't care quite enough to find out what he was like to watch any shaky bootleg. But I guess I'm lucky the first Enjolras I saw onstage was so well-liked, even though I can't remember details anymore.

Thaxton is by no means the only popular one, each Enjy has his fans. Some judge Enjolrati by qualities like voice and stage presence. But there's also always criticism based on a performance clashing with the book. Ramin Karimloo crossing himself in the 25th Ann. Concert, for example? Heresy! Even though majority of Les Mis fans are open for all sorts of interpretations, there are the people who prefer the stage actors to draw their inspiration from the book only.

An example of Enjolras

I'm not saying wanting to see the book onstage is a bad thing, not at all. But here's something I've been thinking about: how about if someone sees an Enjolras (especially from this point on, feel free to replace the word Enjolras with any musical character that's based on, well, something) that's nothing like the character in the book – and loves the interpretation? What if, to them, Enjolras is the guy they saw onstage and they don't care what the book says? Is their love for the character any less valid if the performance they love deviates from whatever is the source material?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to this, I guess. One would say that the guy giving the non-book-accurate performance should be locked away, since he's making new fans believe Enjolras is something he really isn't. The other would go meh, who cares, to each their own.

Personally, I think that's the beauty of theatre, in a way. On one hand, you have the same characters in each production of the same show. On the other, you get to see a different side of the character each time. Even though it's fantastic to see someone who acts like they leaped straight out of a classic piece of literature, would that be so special if every single performance was like that? And how about if someone can bring something to a role that's not in the book but enriches the musical?

I usually use book-accurate as a positive expression whenever reviewing shows. That's because I think it shows something: the actor cared enough about their role to research it thoroughly. That's not to say I can't love a performance by someone who hasn't read the book or doesn't show it. It just means I tend to respect those who decide to take the extra trouble a little bit more.

Another example of Enjolras

But still, when it comes to the person who loved the non-book-accurate performance – in a way, I think they're richer than a person who has only seen a performance that matches the source material (or a performance that's practically identical to some other actor's, for that matter). Maybe they can check out the source material for themselves and find out about the so-called original version. Then they already know two takes of the same thing. Maybe the different take helps them to understand the original version better, or maybe seeing the original enforces their love for the different?

Back to Enjolras. This all is not to say I enjoy all sorts of Enjolrati personally. (I'm not that fond of the angry ones.) It's not to say anyone should. It's not to say, even, that I have never used the phrase "but you can't like that, it's not book-accurate!"... But nowadays, I think matching the source material isn't the only route to a good performance. Knowing it inside out and showing that in one's performance is a nice easter egg for the fans – but I think the most important thing for a performance is to make sense in the musical's universe. It may result to lovely ah! It can also be done like that! moments. It might even result making the character more interesting.

We're back to the replica musical argument again, so I better shut up before I sound too much like a broken record. As a partially unrelated finale, let's have a minute's silence for all those long-running shows where the new cast members are still required to copy the exact hand movements of the original cast.

Photos by Robert Seger or scanned from programmes.
Other similar rants: non-replica productions, looks.
Book Enjy wouldn't wear the vest.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Looks Versus Personality

This won't be exclusively about Les Mis, I promise. It's just the easiest example.

While counting days to the premiere, and again now when the Les Misérables movie has premiered in most countries (but not all, so shhh, don't spoil us still waiting), a certain theme has popped up in fan discussions.
"Cosette can't be a blonde because the book says so!"
"Javert must have sideburns because the book says so!"
"Fantine isn't a brunette because the book says so!"
To some people, Victor Hugo's descriptions of the characters are of utmost importance so these arguments appear no matter which production the discussion is about. After the 25th Anniversary Concert, there were complaints that ranged from casting a person of the wrong skin colour as Javert to dying Ramin Karimloo's hair blonde because the book says so!! I wasn't yet old enough to discuss Les Mis at the time of the 10th Anniversary Concert, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear people argued about the importance of having a blonde Enjolras back then, too.

A Javert I like

This can be a problem with other book-based musicals, too, but I think Les Mis is the best example. The other really famous book-based show is of course Phantom of the Opera – but it's obvious you can't remove the Phantom's nose onstage, so you'll accept that the visuals differ from the book. In Les Mis, then, nothing but the designer's vision is stopping them giving sideburns to all Javerts. I guess it's easier to complain about that.

Personally, I have difficulty seeing why a character's looks meeting the book equivalent is so important to some. Let Javert have a beard like Santa Claus if he can act the part! My opinion about character looks is the same as my opinion about non-replica productions: the more different versions the merrier! But I don't mean to say I never get distracted by an actor's looks. This is usually when it comes to age. When I see a way too old or young person cast in some part, I have to suspend my disbelief more than when encountered with a brunette Fantine.

It's easier to make someone look older via theatre magic, so I don't think casting too young people is a really big problem. Sometimes it might be a bit silly. If you have for example a very young Valjean or Javert it might look a bit comical, like boys dressing up in grownup clothes. But it's still less notable than casting people who are too old. Too bad it seems the latter happens around here a bit more often...

A Cosette I like

Usually, I can suspend my disbelief, but it gets harder when the cast's ages clearly clash. Here, I have to use Samuel Harjanne and Tomi Metsäketo as Enjolras and Marius, in the Åbo Svenska Teater and upcoming Tampereen Teatteri productions, as an example. On their own, you can imagine the both playing the parts. Sure, Metsäketo is getting a bit too old for Marius, but you can ignore that. But when you see them onstage together, boom. Suddenly you notice that there's a notable age gap, that they don't seem members of the same group. I think wrong ages are less distracting if everyone in the cast, or at least the roles who interact the most with each other, are casted in a similar manner: everyone's either too young or too old or, preferably, the correct age. However, things like this aren't enough to stop me enjoying any show. They might be jarring, but I've never hated a production because the cast is the wrong age.

And overall, I try my best to ignore the ages. I guess acting is a rather cruel profession since there are so many things you can't change that can stop you getting a part – vocal range, age, even your looks... So if everything else but the age is perfect, if someone knows how to perform the part, I'll certainly rather watch them than someone who's lacking in the acting or singing departments. I could name a dozen performances where I initially thought that wow, they look completely wrong for this, but ended up applausing until my hands hurt.

Not to mention that sometimes it's good to have your pre-existing expectations twisted. Take Tanz der Vampire's Herbert, for example. Before the Finnish production, fans were used to a fairy-like Prince Charming reincarnated as a vampire. We all remember what Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri gave us.

A Herbert I like, with his lunch

There are people, especially international fans, who had really strong opinions about this. There was some discussion even in this blog's comments. Some fans just weren't able to wrap their heads around this tall, robust guy as Herbert. However, it seems most people who actually saw the Seinäjoki production absolutely loved Jouko Enkelnotko in the role. Some think the chance in the looks made the character even better than the previous versions had been. To think that if hardcore fans had been in charge of the casting, this well-loved performance might not have happened!

So, in the light of this all... Even if it's sometimes jarring, I'm glad looks are sometimes ignored while casting musicals, or people who you initially couldn't imagine in the role looks-wise are chosen. Looks are of course a big part of each character, but if you stick to them too much, you might miss some unexpectedly awesome performances and interesting changes. I guess that's worth having to suspend your disbelief sometimes.

And when it comes to the brunette versus blonde Cosette or whoever thing... If someone's able to explain it to me in the comments how exactly changing the hair colour destroys the character Victor Hugo originally envisioned, or the performance in the musical, go for it. I'm all ears.

Photos by Malin Arnesson, Nana Simelius and Ari Ijäs.