Friday, February 21, 2014

Nordic Reviews: Rebecca

And finally, the last entry and the only disappointment in my Nordic series: Malmö Opera's Rebecca.

Rebecca's not one of my favourite musicals, but still a show I remember liking well enough when I saw it for the first time. It's after all a thriller full of drama and emotion, so it's not too hard to stay interested! Malmö Opera's production, however, didn't make me experience any strong feelings. It was lukewarm at best.

Visually, the production was very stylized. The leading couple wore period clothing, but the ensemble had unique, futuristic-meets-middle-ages type looks. The sets were very minimal, most of the scenery was created via projections, and the cast's movements were strictly choreographed throughout. It all looked sort of nice, but felt distancing. I suspect the cold visuals were supposed to convey that the heroine of the story doesn't feel at home in Monte Carlo nor in Manderley. But somehow, whereas in Cabaret the modern looks helped me to get into the story, here they took me further away from it. Or maybe it's just impossible to stage an intense, intimate show in a huge hall like Malmö Opera?

What's more I don’t know if I was just sitting in a really bad place acoustically or what, but to me, the orchestra sounded like a big blur of sound, massive but uninteresting. None of the instrumentals really sent shivers down my spine. To be completely honest, most of the songs sounded the same to me.

I wasn't too impressed with the leading lady, Ida Högberg. I didn't get a clear sense of the character's internal growth, she felt pretty much the same from start to finish. Philip Jalmelid, then, felt a bit too young for the role of Maxim de Winter still, and a bit too subdued to really convey his character's internal struggle all across the huge auditorium. But I've a feeling that in a few years, in a different, more intimate production, he might make a brilliant Maxim. His vocals were quite awesome already!

My favourite performances of the evening, however, were Rickard Söderberg as Ben and Fred Johanson as Jack Favell. The former made me feel real sympathy towards his character and sung the part with a strong, beautiful voice. The latter was deliciously slimy.

Despite the few good performances, I left the theatre without having felt much anything. Malmö Opera's Rebecca is one of those shows you can easily forget you even saw. 

Photos by Malin Arnesson.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Nordic Reviews: Sweeney Todd

Me, the city of Stockholm, and the musical Sweeney Todd have a history together. I last visited the Swedish capital six years ago: me and my long-suffering dad travelled to Stockholm on the movie's opening weekend. I saw the film three times then. So, it's fun that my newest trip to Stockholm also included watching Sweeney. Though, this time, I saw it live in Stockholms Stadsteater!

I've mentioned it before that Sweeney is so dramatic it's silly. It's a weird mix of true sorrow and black humor, and you can't always tell what is supposed to be what. On one hand, you have serious songs about sincere feelings (my favourite is Sweeney's part in Johanna Quartet. It's such a beautiful song about longing for what cannot be), but on the other hand a murderous barber and cannibalistic pies. Yeah. If you stop to think about it, it doesn't really get sillier than that.

In some ways, Stockholms Stadsteater's production was like the movie gone onstage. The corsets, hairdos, makeup and even Mrs. Lovett's striped socks were directly from the silver screen. This is the stage production the 14-year-old me would have wanted to see! However, the mood of this onstage version was rather different from the film. Where the film is all about the tragedy, this had a lighter tone overall...

I admit I sometimes laughed at the wrong parts. You rarely see anything as angry onstage as Peter Jöback's Sweeney. I'm afraid his Epiphany was a touch too wild for me to keep a straight face throughout it'd been best experienced from a bit further than the third row, maybe... Jöback was quite over-the-top all the way through, and his voice didn't suit the part. Vanna Rosenberg as Mrs. Lovett, then, didn't really leave a lasting impression on me. I think I liked Maja Rung as Johanna the best. Her Johanna was half-crazed by her loneliness from the beginning, you could see the fear in her eyes all the time.

I don't know if I could call this production good, per se. For the first 30 minutes, I didn't like what I saw and was sure I'd walk out disappointed. But somehow, the show grew on me. I suppose I got into the right mindset after the first few scenes. By the very end, I couldn't stop smiling. The over-the-top energy was exactly what made me enjoy the piece. Had they tried to do this more seriously, the show might've fallen flat on its face. But throw a couple of limbs into the meat grinder during the serious song and there you go!

This show made me feel happy, plain and simple. It was probably the nostalgia, the 14-year-old inside me who had been wanting to see this exact production ever since she fell in love with the movie... I can't rationally explain why I had such a good time, and if someone reading this text decides to see the show, I certainly can't quarantee they'll enjoy it. But for me, it worked. It was fun.

A perfect return to Stockholm for me.

Photos by Carl Thorborg.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nordic Reviews: Evita

You know what? I really like the character of Che in the musical Evita. Like, really like him. In that almost scary way where, whenever the character is onstage, I can't look at anyone else. I even have an iTunes playlist with three hours of Che’s songs from different productions.

So, you can guess how happy I was to see that Det Ny Teater's production of Evita is as much about Che's story than it is about Eva Perón's. 

Let’s be fair and talk about the leading lady first, though.

Charlotte Guldberg as Eva was a strong lead. I might not be the hugest fan of the tone of her voice, but technically, she sung the part quite beautifully – and managed to convey Eva’s character arc well, too. Her Eva was a woman who really held onto her ambitions until the very end and clearly faced the biggest challenge of her lifetime when it became apparent that she has to give up. The character’s possible sympathetic side was somewhat overshadowed by her ambitious side (despite following the movie’s example and giving the song Another Suitcase in Another Hall to Eva – a change I really like, by the way), but overall, it was a fine performance.

Jesper Lohmann’s Perón, then, didn’t quite keep up with his Eva: personally, I think both Lohmann’s voice and his stage presence were a bit lacking for the part. I simply prefer deeper voices and somehow more authorative acting in the role.

But, as said, my eyes were on Tomas Ambt Kofod as Che for most of the time. And I really enjoyed what I got to see.

Kofod loaded his performance with genuinely funny moments and plenty of energy, but the character also had a deeper, darker side. Throughout the show, we got to see Che's attitude towards Eva changing in a way I don't think I've quite seen in any adaptation so far. He of course begun the show with a very critical tone – but then, we went back in time and suddenly saw a Che who's excited about what's happening, hopeful about the changes Eva might bring along. And then we got to see how he gradually got more and more cynical, lost more and more of that hope.  

[If you are planning to see this production, you might not want to read the following pharagraph. I know I would've been mad had someone spoiled this for me!] And then the final scene. The very last image of the show wasn't of Eva, it was of Che. The show went for the Che-as-everyman route, which I prefer... But then, at the very last moment of the show, he put on the hat with the star in front and turned into Guevara. And that I'm sure it's historically very inaccurate, but I still loved the twist. It completed the character arc and completely surprised me.

Overall, I enjoyed this production. It had its flaws – for example, a couple of songs, like The Art of the Possible and A Waltz for Eva and Che, felt rather confused direction-wise. But when it comes to the two leading characters’ stories as a whole, and the general look and sound of the production, I really liked it. If Denmark wasn’t so far away, I think I’d like to see this once or twice again.

Photos by Miklos Szabo.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nordic Reviews: Cabaret

Greetings from Sweden, everybody! I'm currently on a little Nordic winter holiday tour, to see some Swedish and Danish musical theatre. And to review it a bit too, of course. I'll try to write a short text about each of the shows I see.

Starting with Malmö Stadsteater's production of Cabaret.

I saw Cabaret some years ago in Finland and, since then, thought it's a musical I don't like. I booked my ticket to see it in Malmö for one reason and one reason only: Lindy Larsson as the MC. I saw Larsson play Che in Malmö Opera's recent production of Evita and have been a fan ever since. So if I'm planning a trip to Sweden and he's in a musical, though one I don't like, but right on my route? Of course I'll see that!

So, let's talk about Larsson first. Another case of me having huge expectations and yet not being one bit disappointed! He made a fantastic MC. I don't feel the character was a real human being here, I don't think he quite existed in the same dimension as Sally and Cliff. The narrator really felt like a spirit or a symbol of the era depicted in the show. And what a symbol! Larsson's incredibly powerful voice and strong stage presence and incredibly high heels ensured that my attention was on him all the time. From creepy moments to sweet and everything in between, a powerful performance all the way through. (By the way, this production has a woman listed as u/s MC. I would love to see that happen, too!)

I'm glad that I decided to see this production for other reasons too, though. Hugo Hansén's direction helped me understand that though it has its weak bits and boring songs, there is plenty in Cabaret that makes it an interesting musical, a show still worth producing and still worth seeing.

Sure, this production was as far from the traditional take as you can get. Kit Kat Club was turned into a voguing house, and the choreography and music reflected that. Many of the songs were hardly recognisable in the new style. But! Apart from a couple of needless references to the fact that they are, indeed, voguing, and that the Kit Kat Club is, indeed, a place where said voguing happens, it suited the piece. And the modern aesthetics served as a reminder that the story, sadly enough, isn't quite outdated yet. When watching a version with period sets and costumes, one can more easily dismiss Ernst's lines about certain people not belonging to a certain country as a creepy part of history that's thankfully in the past. But the modern visuals and tunes seemed to underline that it's still happening – that, today, there are still people who have similar thoughts as Ernst does.

It's a shame the last two minutes of the piece were such a mess, then. I think the show should've ended when the MC was shot. It might've been a bit over the top, but still, it would've worked as a metaphor of an era being over. But no, it didn't stop there. The running-around-with-a-gun-women-screaming-fake-blood-falling-from-the-ceiling-rising-from-the-dead action that followed... Oh boy. I don't know what they were trying to achieve with the ending, but I at least left the theatre with a bitter aftertaste. To me, it felt like the show didn't know how to stop. (If you've seen this production and have some theories about what the ending might symbolise and/or reasons why it's good as it is, feel free to enlighten me.)

Overall, though, Malmö Stadsteater's Cabaret was a good production. From now on, I'll be giving new productions of Cabaret a chance a bit more eagerly, if the show happens any pop up near me again. Even if the cast list doesn't include Lindy Larsson.

Photos by Markus Gårder.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed

It's been hard getting this text started. Sometimes you're just so overwhelmed. You know, when you look forward to something for a year, are really excited, then finally get the thing and notice that it's not only as good as you imagined, but even better?

Such is the case with, as you may have guessed based on my previous two entries, Åbo Svenska Teater's Jesus Christ Superstar.

I saw the preview showing or, technically, the last dress rehearsal – so, technically, I'm still reviewing work in progress here. But given the quality of said work... If the premiere was half as good as what I saw on Wednesday, it was still a great show, so I think I can share my two cents about this!

First things first. Out of everything impressive in this production, I personally found the orchestrations by Jussi Vahvaselkä the most exciting thing (apart from the lead actor maybe, but we'll return to him...). I've never been this pumped about orchestrations, actually! There were so many exciting details I've never heard on any cast recording before, the music sounded unique and fresh and overall just so very good. Had the show just been the band playing instrumental versions of the songs for two hours, I would still have left the theatre feeling happy... I'll be eternally bitter that there won't be a cast recording of this.

The music had a fantastic flow. And Juha Hemánus's direction flowed just as beautifully. It's one of those (at least to me, surprisingly rare) musicals where the illusion works perfectly and naturally, where you honestly forget that people don't usually express their emotions through song and dance – the feelings and actions were so real. The Overture was amazing already, how the whole situation was introduced to the audience without anyone saying a word. And from there until the very end... I hardly had time to breathe, the flow of events was so intense all the way through. In the best way.

And then to the star of the night, Alexander Lycke.

Oh man. Oh man.

In ÅST's Les Misérables, Lycke was a great Jean Valjean already. I knew to expect something good. But his Jesus... It's as if the role was made for his voice, really. I truely and honestly feel like crying when I sit here just thinking about his Gethsemane. I'm getting chills. I've been getting chills for two days every time I've really thought about the song. I'm afraid I cannot talk about Lycke's performance in further detail right now. I'm still too amazed, way too amazed to actually process and analyze it yet.

I can, however, say a couple of words about some other performances... Chris Killik as Judas was a great opposing force to Lycke's Jesus, both vocally and acting-wise. The two performances had a good balance. It really felt like Jesus is the rock star here, and Judas the voice of reason – until the song Superstar, when tables are turned, Judas gets his moment (and what a moment!) in the shining spotlights and Jesus can't but watch and brace himself for what is about to happen.

Anna-Maria Hallgarn made a lovely Mary Magdalene. I Don't Know How to Love Him still doesn't rank among my favourite songs, but all her little moments with Jesus and her passive-aggressive attitude towards Judas... In the musical, we don't really get to know how Jesus feels about Mary – but as far as I'm concerned after seeing this performance, he has every reason to fall in love with her...

Waltteri Torikka as Pilate was rather great too. His take was really arrogant, all about showing off and letting everyone know who is the boss around here, and I quite liked that. Maybe I would've wished that he'd shown just a tiny bit more compassion towards Jesus, that there had been a slightly stronger sense of inner conflict within the character... But it was a solid, enjoyable performance already. And such a voice!

Somehow – though this sounds odd to mention, the thought kept returning to me all the way through the scene, so I feel I should discuss it – I wish this production would've cast a woman as King Herod. I have listened to one cast recording with a female Herod and I've been fascinated by the idea ever since. While it sure works to have Herod surrounded by stripper girls, and Dick Holmström's performance in the role was pretty delicious, King Herod's Song was still the most tired scene of the show. I think giving it a twist, like Lady Herod surrounded by her toyboys would've been, would've improved the scene. It's not bad as it is, not at all – just a tad less fresh, in my opinion, than the rest of the production.

It surprised me how strongly the story held my attention. At times, I nearly forgot I was watching the story of Jesus. For the most part, I was watching a tale about events that get horribly out of hand, a story of people who get trapped in a scary situation. A human story about human errors, not a divine story about a religious figure. And then, by the end and with the visual of the crucifixion, I was reminded that sometimes something a lot bigger can grow from situations and stories like that.

Overall, Jesus Christ Superstar is the closest I've ever gotten to having a true theatrical catharsis experience. Both the concert I saw some years ago and this production left me shaking by the end. It's so different from my other favourites. There are many musicals where a dark ending is turned into a vaguely happy one by finishing with an uplifting song, shows like Les Mis, Next to Normal, Doctor Zhivago... It's good to have a favourite that doesn't go there, a favourite that's actually not so easy to watch. The biblical version of the story ends well, of course, but here... To me, the ending is amazingly effective. I feel even having music played during the applause is somehow distracting. The events we've just witnessed have been so horrifying and the whole experience so huge, I still need time to process it.

It's a gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous production. If you want to see one musical in Finland, make it this one.

Photos by Pette Rissanen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

ÅST JCS: Preview Continuation

I already talked about Åbo Svenska Teater's upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar. But seeing I got the chance to visit the production's press info event today, here's a little update.

Firstly, I'll repeat what I've already been saying: I've a really good feeling about this. After this preview probably more than ever.

In the event, director Juha Hemánus talked about the vision behind the production a bit. The events will be set in the near future, in a post-apocalyptic society. The show will handle themes such as revolution (and it, at times, devouring its own children), mass media, and of course tragic human fates. Hemánus also made a point saying that, even though he can explain the thoughts behind the show, the audience should decide for themselves what they see in the production – that it's up to the watcher's own interpretation whether Jesus is a divine figure or not. It's not a question we can answer for sure, so the show is not going to offer definitive answers either.

So, I think I won't go deeper into any of the themes now but will return to this by sharing my own thoughts after I'll finally see the whole show next week.

Secondly... Even though I may be studying journalism, I admit that in this event, I was about five percent a member of the press and 95% a fan. It was just so nice seeing sneak peeks of the show and getting to say hi to some of the cast members! So, to share something of that feeling, here are said sneak peeks in audiovisual form:

A week and a day left to wait anymore.