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.


  1. I went to see the show on last Saturday and – needless to say – was pretty much stunned of what I saw.

    In short: ÄST’s JCS is a near-perfect reading of the subject material.

    I think I agree with Siiri on most things and will only chime in a few additional remarks:

    - Alexander Lycke is God. Definitely.
    - The production design is awesome. Okay, bringing the story into the modern context, having the punk/goth gear-up etc. is not that fresh idea of course – the modernization and anachronisms dating back to that awful movie version already – but the execution (sets, costumes, lights and how they match) is probably the best I have seen on these forgotten shores ever (the only thing I can think can rival it is “Tanz der Vampire” at the Seinäjoki city theatre back in 2011-2012).
    - Chris Killik was great as Judas and he did a good job in making the frustration of the character believable. His suicide scene was one of the – if not *the* - most brutal piece of stage drama I have ever witnessed and I think my wife was genuinely shocked about it. However, my vote for the best “Heaven on their Minds” still goes for Carl Anderson (the only good thing in that otherwise forgettable movie).
    - I had some difficulties to swallow Anna-Maria Hallgarn’s Mary Magdalene at first but towards the end I started to like her quite a lot – she had quite convicting aura of a prostitute that has already seen her best days... She also managed to carry the interesting minimalist arrangement of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with great dignity.
    - Didn’t like Waltteri Torikka’s Pilate. The guy got a great voice but I didn’t like such operatic style in this context and his interpretation of Pilate was way too vulgar for my taste. Antti Valinkainen still remains my favorite :-)
    - I think the ensemble was used quite effectively to build up the general vibe of each scene. And oh boy, weren’t those girls hot :-)
    - Adding the crowd noise to “39 Slashes” unfortunately broke the holy trinity of hypnotic riff, Pilate and slashes...
    - The overall sound was and bit unbalanced and muddy (might have something to do being seated on the second row which might have put me inside the PA, so it might have sounded better farther back).
    - At times it was very raw and disturbing and as Siiri mentioned, the feverish pace doesn't let the spectator from the grip even for a second.

  2. Hey!
    Its the best musical i´ve seen on stage! Alex is a lovely and handsome jesus, chris killik, wow. AnnaMaria as maria is stung. what a voice!

    I love the stage, the dance, everything. Actually the ensemble is my absolutely favorite: Jenna Ahran, Marcus Helmer Gustavsson and Tord Hansson is the best of them all. They are sharp, intense and explosive.
    Im going to see it next week and sitting on the front row, can´t wait to see the flirting Marcus Helmer Gustafsson dance in Superstar! Im in love!

    What do you think about the ensemble people? Any favorite?

    1. Fellow fans high five! :D

      I already touched upon this elsewhere, but I'll mention it here too: I'm afraid I don't have any favourites in the ensemble – yet. I've been so amazed by the leading performances and felt there is so much for me to see there that I haven't so far really paid the ensemble my full attention. They do a great job as a whole, I've certainly noticed that, but I don't really have an opinion on individual ensemble members. But! Give me a couple times more in the audience and I suspect I'll have my own list of ensemble favourites, too...

      Have fun in the front row!!