Monday, September 29, 2014

The Old Razzle Dazzle

Lahden kaupunginteatteri is one of those theatres that are really important to me. It's where I first fell in love with Finnish musical theatre. The year was 2008, the show was Cats, my age was 16 years old – it was love at first sight. I've Lahden kaupunginteatteri a lot to thank for.

Too bad that since 2008, the theatre hasn't really produced any musicals to my liking.

I was bored by their Oliver!. I disliked their Cabaret. I borderline detested their Hair. Last spring, I got so little out of their West Side Story that I couldn't even find words to review it with.

But now, the tide has finally turned. Lahden kaupunginteatteri's production of Chicago is a brilliant take of the musical.

The production has double cast in the two leading roles. I caught Laura Huhtamaa as Roxie and Elsa Saisio as Velma (and am looking forward to seeing Hanna Vahtikari and Maiju Saarinen some day soon). What a fantastic duo! Both are full of charisma and shine brightly in their roles. And when combined with Mikko Pörhölä's perfectly arrogant, charismatic Billy Flynn... They make a delicious combo.

Also, thumbs up for Tapani Kalliomäki as the MC. The Broadway version of Chicago doesn't have an MC, but I have to admit I have grown very fond of narrator/master of ceremonies type of characters over the years. So, it's actually nice seeing one installed here. It took me a while to warm up to the character, but by the end, I enjoyed Kalliomäki's gleeful performance.

For once, the theatre's huge stage isn't too big. The cast is actually rather small, but the stage doesn't feel empty at any point. The orchestra (sounding great!) has a place onstage like in the Broadway version. Unlike that version, though, in this one there are plenty of sets and the scenery is in motion nearly all the time. I like the look of the show as a whole – sets by Minna Välimäki, lights by Jouni Nykopp, costumes by Jaana Kurttila. Nothing too unique, maybe, but still a nice shiny, glittery look.

Overall, Miika Muranen's direction has a great flow. As said, I didn't get much out of his West Side Story. But here, the show has good energy and the action moves from one scene to the next really smoothly. Chicago, with its story of rivalrous murderesses fighting for their fifteen minutes of fame, is not be the deepest or the most thought-provoking musical out there. But when done well... Oh boy, is it entertaining. This production is so much fun.

My biggest snag with the production is that Mary Sunshine is portrayed by a lady, Ilona Pukkila. Not that Pukkila is bad in the role – but has the part ever been portrayed by a man in Finland? Is there simply no one around with a suitable voice..? Having a woman in the role destroys the character's punchline, and her song isn't too impressive if it isn't sung by a dude with a killer falsetto. Eagerly looking forward to seeing the current Stockholm production where Chris Killik wears the high heels!

Also, hopefully I'll one day see a non-replica version of Chicago with The Hot Honey Rag as an actual dance number. Here, the song is played during the very energetic curtain call. That's fun, but The Hot Honey Rag dance is maybe my favourite thing in the Broadway staging. So it'd be nice to see it in other versions too!

Still, these are minor flaws. Watching some other production, I might be more annoyed at these, but here the rest of the show is so good that I can quickly forget some slight disagreements. I decided to see the show again during the intermission already, and bought my next ticket right after the show ended. Kind of like chain smoking, but better for your health.

In short, if you can, go see this one. And if you can't, here's the production's teaser trailer, which I hope gives you at least a little idea of how the show is like:

Photos by Sami Heiskanen.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

On Being a Fan

Yesterday, I saw a play about a tail-less cat called Pekka Töpöhäntä. In Sweden, where he's from, he's called Pelle Svanslös. In English, he's known as Peter-No-Tail. He is often teased because of his eponymous lack of tail, but in the end, he always prevails over the bullies and shows us that kindness is the right way to go.

No, I'm not having a theatre burnout manifesting itself in a confused way. This isn't a nostalgia trip either – I didn't even like Pekka Töpöhäntä as a kid.

Instead, I have a favourite actor.

This guy here.

The path that eventually lead to me watching a show about the adventures of a tail-less cat begun when I first saw Jekyll & Hyde in Turun kaupunginteatteri. I can't remember the exact moment when I thought that hmm, here's someone who I want to see in everything they'll do from now on. But seeing how I gave Severi Saarinen a thumbs-up for is portrayal of John Utterson in my J&H review, I suspect it was theatrical love at first sight.

Jekyll & Hyde is a story about a man who literally rips his soul in half, and I find his lawyer friend the most fascinating character of the show? Yep. Partially, I suppose whoever's responsible for the changes in the script is to thank for: the Turku production had a revised script that gave Utterson plenty more lines than any of the other versions I've seen bootlegs of. Usually, the character's there just to give Jekyll someone to talk to. But here, he actually had a personality of his own, even in the script.

But it was of course the performance that made me fall in love with the character. Utterson felt so three-dimensional, so real, and so did his relationship with Jekyll. By the end of the show, my heart broke for all the characters, but especially for Utterson. I ended up seeing Jekyll & Hyde seven times, and while I loved the show as a whole and adored all the actors, I paid one particular performance extra attention each time.

After Jekyll & Hyde, I've indeed seen Saarinen in everything he's done. It's been a mixed bag of productions, with a couple of shows I definitely would not have seen otherwise. Wanting to see a favourite actor is as good reason as any to broaden my theatrical horizons, I guess! And still, no matter if it's a play for adults or a cat musical for kids, his performances have always been a joy to watch.

Another blogger said it beautifully. I quote:
do you ever get theatre crushes where you don’t necessarily fancy the person but you just fall in love with their performances and their singing and their stage presence and character interpretation and you could go on about how amazing they are for hours and hours and you know you’re gushing but you don’t care because they’re just so amazing at what they do

Glad there's a grand total of two photos available of Saarinen in J&H.

Despite all the theatre I see, it is not all that often I encounter someone whose acting lights up the stage for me like this. There are countless actors I really enjoy watching, people whose talents I truely admire – and then a few who touch my soul. It cannot be explained with reason, and it's such a personal opinion that I don't really even mind if others don't quite get my feelings. But I can feel the magic every time I sit in the darkened auditorium watching their performances.

And that is why I ended up watching a play about a tail-less cat showing others that bullying is not the right thing to do.

Photos by Kari Sunnari and Robert Seger.
Suomalaiset lukijat voivat vilkaista täältä, mitä mieltä olin Pekka Töpöhännästä.

Pekka Töpöhäntä seikkailee

Dear international readers: this is a Finnish-only review about a children's show. I wrote a related post in English, maybe go check that out!
Huom. näin näytelmän ensi-illan ilmaiseksi lehdistölipulla.

Tampereen Työväen Teatterin Pekka Töpöhäntä -esityksen toisessa näytöksessä tapahtuu kauhistuttava rikos.

Monni, joka on tähän mennessä toki kiusannut Pekkaa mutta ollut loppujen lopuksi melko harmiton pahis – tietokilpailussa huijaamista ja ilkeitä letkautuksia – päättää Pekan nukkuessa livauttaa tämän säkkiin ja heittää tämän laivaan. Laiva lähtee kiertämään maailman meriä, eikä Pekka enää palaa.

Monni käy tuumasta toimeen apuriensa Pillin ja Pullan kanssa ja onnistuu demonisessa juonessaan tuosta vain. Pekka heitetään laivaan, laiva lähtee, Maija Maitoparta jää yksin rannalle suremaan.

Järkytyin. Kai joku passittaa Monnin lukemaan tiilenpäitä tästä hyvästä? No eipä passita! Sen sijaan Pekkaa odotellaan palaavaksi kokonainen vuosi – ja hän saapuu takaisin iloisena, reippaana ja kaiken anteeksi antaneena. Seuraavaksi hän menee osallistumaan Monnin järjestämään juoksukilpailuun.

En tiedä, sopiiko tämä näytelmä lapsille.

Kun sanoin äsken "järkytyin", oikeasti tarkoitin "puhkesin
nauruun kolmesti teatterissa ja neljästi näytelmän päätyttyä".
Vakuutan, että olen silti henkisesti tasapainoinen yksilö.

Näytelmän kuvaaman maailman sosiaalinen ja yhteiskunnallinen järjestys on iloisen sekaisin. Kansa on äärimmäisen helposti johdateltavissa. Monnin tarvitsee vain heittää populistinen iskulause ("hännättömät maalaiset vievät meiltä silakat ja tyttökissat"), ja yhtäkkiä kaikki kaupungin kissat haluavat häätää Töpöhännän keskuudestaan.

Monni on tietenkin ilkeä ja väärässä, mutta Pekka on protagonistina raivostuttava. Hän ei opi mitään menneistä tapahtumista vaan menee mukaan Monnin metkuihin kerran toisensa jälkeen. Mistä tarinan päähenkilön pohjaton optimismi ja luottamus kumpuaa?

Hyvyys palkitaan lopussa: töpöhäntäinen sankarimme pokaa itselleen kauniin vaimon ja perheeseen syntyy lastenvaunun täydeltä suloisia kissalapsia. Mutta palkitaanko paha, saako Monni lopulta ansionsa mukaan? Ei tietenkään. Sadistisen laivajuonen toteutettuaan kriminaalikissa palaa pikkurikollisuuden pariin. Kun hän lopussa tekee hetkellisen parannuksen ja pelastaa Pekan lapset palavasta talosta, antaa kiusattu kiusaajalleen anteeksi ja entiset riidat sovitaan miehekkäällä halauksella. Mutta onko tämä kestävä ratkaisu? Onko Monnikaan oikeasti oppinut mitään?


Vakavoidutaanpa nyt hetkeksi.

Näkisin, että TTT:n Pekka Töpöhäntä on sangen mukiinmenevää lastenteatteria. Siiri 21 v. ainakin viihtyi, ja hän epäilee, että Siiri 8 v. olisi ollut näkemästään suorastaan innoissaan. Teknojumputukseksi päivitetty musiikki soi komeasti, puvuissa ja valoissa riittää väriä ja näköä, hahmot ovat hauskoja. Lähdeteosten ikä paistaa hieman läpi (tyttökissat esimerkiksi jäävät enimmäkseen tyttöystävän rooliin), mutta kiusaamisen vastainen viesti on tietenkin tärkeä.

Ja jos joku nyt on hiljalleen alkanut pohtia, että mitä Siiri 21 v. tekee Pekka Töpöhännän katsomossa... Kirjoitin fanina olemisen olemuksesta hieman laajemmin täällä, mutta selvennettäköön nyt tässäkin lyhyesti – olen saavuttanut faniudessani sen pisteen, jossa Severi Saarinen voi esittää olkoon sitten vaikka hännätöntä kissaa. Katsomaan on mentävä.

Ilahduttava teatteri-ilta kaikin puolin.

Kuvat: Kari Sunnari
P.S. Kohdeyleisöön taisi ainakin upota. Eturivissä istui nimittäin pieni poika, joka tuuletti villisti, kun Pekka voitti juoksukilpailun. Jos itsekin osaisi eläytyä näkemäänsä noin voimakkaasti!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Five Years

Please note: Åbo Svenska Teater invited me to see a preview of this production for free.

Åbo Svenska Teater's The Last 5 Years (directed by Markus Virta, starring Alexander Lycke and Anna-Maria Hallgarn) sounds and looks beautiful. But, as I suspected, it is not a musical for my tastes.

The Last 5 Years tells the story of a relationship, plain and simple. That's where my interest plummets. I like my books rather realistic, but when it comes to my stage musicals, I prefer larger-than-life stories. The story of a broken marriage is simply not for me.

Lycke and Hallgarn both sing their parts really beautifully, as I knew they would. The show was certainly worth seeing for them. But the characters themselves... Meh. The character of Jamie grates on me especially. Maybe it's the point that he's something of a selfish jerk, but in a musical with only two characters, I would've preferred that both are likeable. As it was, I felt much more strongly for Cathy. (Bonus points that Lycke gets to sing upbeat songs and smile in this one, though. After Jean Valjean and Jesus, that's a true novelty.)

What's more, I don't think Jason Robert Brown's music is really for me, either. There are catchy parts and songs I like, but as a whole, it's not a score that'll climb high on my list of favourites. I can't really explain why. There's just something that doesn't excite me about it.

All in all, the show didn't much move me. I didn't feel bored, but I didn't get swept into the story either. I enjoyed listening to the singers, but more in a sense one enjoys a concert than a piece of theatre. I'm not saying it's a bad show. It's just a combination of many things I don't enjoy personally.

There's something I've been thinking about a while, and this show got me thinking about it again. So, now, a little digression.

I wonder if the events of The Last 5 Years could have been moved from the USA to Finland?

When Wasa Teater did Next to Normal, they turned the Goodmans into Sundqvists and replaced references to eloping to Portland to something a little more Nordic. The story literally hit closer to home when the characters were turned into Finns. Mamma Mia! does a similar thing: even the English-speaking productions have different dialogue depending on the country, and the upcoming Finnish version will rename some characters and give the Swedish translation a new Fennoswedish spin.

Might the same treatment work with The Last 5 Years? Could Jamie write a Finlandia prize winner or Cathy get an acting gig in Lapland? I don't really see why they should always remain American in foreign productions. Some shows are so rooted in a certain culture that you can't change them, even if the country is not mentioned out loud (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with its college football fight song pops to mind), but a relationship tale like this has nothing to do with nationality.

When it comes to this production, though, I admit it might get a bit complicated. The actors are both Swedish, though the show is being performed in Finland. Turning them Fennoswedish could feel awkward. And of course, the point of the story remains the same despite the nationalities, even if you don't know where Ohio is. But in general, when it comes to stories like this – I guess it'd be even easier to relate to the characters if they were from the same country as the audience. I'd like to see more shows take the Wasa Teater Next to Normal route of translating.

What do you think? If you know of any musical translations that have changed the characters' nationalities, let me know about them in the comments!

I suppose seeing The Last 5 Years got me thinking, even if it didn't really move me... It was definitely interesting to see this musical. I've heard so much good about it, and though I didn't fall in love, I now know what people are talking about when they praise it. Maybe I'll even see the movie when it premieres. I'm curious to find out how a show like this translates to film.

In a nutshell, if you like this musical or down-to-earth relationship stories in general, I suspect you'll like this production too. It's not for me. But maybe it could be for you?

Photos by Pette Rissanen.
P.S. If someone ever wants to do another smaller-scale show with Lycke and Hallgarn somewhere, might I suggest Next to Normal? They'd be beyond amazing as Dan and Diana.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Santa Evita

Please note: Tampereen Työväen Teatteri invited me to see the premiere of this production for free.

A while ago, I listed Tampereen Työväen Teatteri's Evita as the musical I'm most eagerly looking forward to this fall.

It was worth the wait.

If you're not familiar with the musical, maybe take
a quick trip to Wikipedia and then come back.
I'm going to write this one from the perspective of an avid fan.

The new Finnish production has two alternating casts in four of the leading roles. I saw the show twice during the premiere week but only caught one combination: Maija Rissanen as Eva, Jari Ahola as Che, Ilkka Koivula as Perón, Lari Halme as Magaldi and Emmi Kaislakari, who has no alternate, as the Mistress.

Rissanen makes a lovely Eva. She is very human. Her Eva seems to believe she's working for the better, even if she likes indulging in pretty dresses and jewels while doing so. She has that almost scary ambitious and determined streak, sure, as witnessed during her speech after Don't Cry for Me, Argentina. But by the end, it's upsetting watching her dream of the vice-presidency – wondering if she's convincing herself any more than Perón or the audience.

Rissanen sings mostly beautifully but sounds a bit strained on the highest notes. On the other hand, so do many Evas, even on the cast recordings I've listened to. I suppose Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't really stop to consider the limits of the human voice while composing away.

I like how the relationship in between Perón and Eva works here. It maybe starts as something of a calculated, sensible match – but later, Perón seems truely devastated by Eva's decline, in a restrained way. Maybe he's thinking about how his wife's death will reflect on his popularity, but I've a hard time believing there's not some sorrow in the mix too.

Then there's Che, my favourite character. I didn't have to be disappointed one bit. First of all, Ahola sounds perfect in the part. I could listen to him the whole night, and seeing how this production gives Che some extra lines (for example, half of Lament), I'm pretty much getting my wish. Ahola's acting is to my tastes too, sarcastic and full of life. Bonus points to the production for taking the everyman Che route. I've always felt that adding Che Guevara to the historical mix is a bit too confusing.

This production gives Che and Eva a lot of time together. They dance together during Buenos Aires already, and Che is present in the action most of the time. There are lots of nice small moments in between the two. I like, for example, the bit just before And the Money Kept Rolling In: Che mentions that the poor are still sad and miserable, and in an I'm-already-ahead-of-you-my-friend type of a gesture, Eva brings the foundation in. The two have so much interaction that The Waltz for Eva and Che – in many versions, the only time the characters directly interact – almost feels underwhelming.

I look forward to seeing the other set of alternates: Laura Alajääski as Eva, Juha-Matti Koskela as Che, Mika Honkanen as Perón and Vesa Kietäväinen as Magaldi. I hear their interpretations are quite different from the cast I saw. Wonder how different the show will feel like when I eventually see them?

TTT's Evita looks very good. The sets, by Teppo Järvinen, are rather simple and have a two-dimensional look, but in a good way. Sometimes, few simple elements are all that is needed to fill a big stage. And Marjaana Mutanen's costumes! Eva really shines like a diamond. Her Don't Cry for Me Argentina costume is one of the most beautiful I've seen.

The music has some awkward gaps in between the songs and the orchestrations are rather synthetic (apparently they're using backing tracks in addition to the band) and not too imaginative. They do get the job done, though, the music sounds good. Maybe I just would've wished to hear an orchestration that doesn't sound like the cast recordings I've already heard.

As a whole, Tiina Puumalainen's direction rolls along smoothly. There however are some bits and pieces that I don't quite understand. For example: why does Che break down crying next to Eva's coffin during the Requiem, though the next moment he's sassing her and practically dancing on her grave? The very beginning and the very end don't click together as neatly as they wish they would, and some moments along the way don't really connect to the whole. But these are mostly just annoying details. When thinking about the big picture, they're easily forgotten.

A nice thing about Evita the musical is that it can make people curious about history – and it depicts the life of its titular character with a surprising amount of accuracy. Leaving the theatre, I overheard people wondering if some event from the musical really happened in Eva Peròn's life... Thumbs up to TTT for an informative souvenir programme with a timeline of the real Evita's life!

Beforehand, I was a little worried.

I've seen Evita a couple of times, and usually, the productions have been disappointments. I'm glad to see how well the story moves along in this version. The new Finnish production doesn't offer any mind-blowing new ideas (such as the ending of the recent Danish production – I've since found out that's how the original script ends, but it was surprising nevertheless, seeing how few productions do it), but it tells the story of Eva Perón in a solid, interesting, even touching way.

I've booked my next ticket already. Tampereen Työväen Teatteri's Evita is maybe not going to be an A list favourite for me, but it's definitely something I enjoy and something I'll want to return to.

Photos by Teppo Järvinen.
TTT:n Evitasta suomeksi mm. One Night in Theatre & Kulttuurikarppaaja.

Friday, September 5, 2014

ÅST: The Last Five Years

Åbo Svenska Teater's production of The Last 5 Years is premiering next week.

I'm both excited about this and not.

The Last 5 Years tells a story of a relationship in between a man and a woman, Jamie and Cathy. Both characters tell the story of their romance, but in different orders. Jamie goes through the events from start to finish, from meeting Cathy to proposing to her to breaking up with her – while Cathy starts from the breakup and moves towards the beginning.

Åbo Svenska Teater's upcoming production, directed by Markus Virta, adds a third level. This time, the musical takes place years after Cathy and Jamie's breakup. They meet once more for a closure and go through the story of their time together. I think this sounds interesting. I look forward to seeing how the different time frames will blend into each other onstage.

When it comes to The Last 5 Years in general, though, it doesn't much interest me. I like my onstage stories larger-than-life, far-fetched and preferably drenched in sorrow, maybe with a dash of the supernatural... Realistic stories of relationships aren't something I usually get excited about.

Then there's the music. I've listened to The Last 5 Years previously, and I'm afraid the tunes are not to my tastes. To be quite honest, I usually cannot get through the original cast recording from start to finish. About halfway through the show, there's a song I dislike in particular. I can't explain what about it annoys me so, but I really don't like it – so I tend to push the stop button when it starts and switch to some Les Mis instead.


These two could sing TV ad jingles
for two hours and I'd be enchanted.

Åbo Svenska Teater's The Last 5 Years stars Alexander Lycke and Anna-Maria Hallgarn – in other words, two of my favourite musical actors.

Lycke is of course the number one Jean Valjean ever in my books, and Hallgarn was a fantastic Diana in Wasa Teater's Next to Normal. What's more, they performed together in Åbo Svenska Teater's recent production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is among the best musicals I've ever seen – if not the very best one. I loved every second with them onstage.

I miss Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't have the show back, so I'm glad that its stars are returning to Turku at least. Even if they're in a show that doesn't much interest me.

Here's a video of the song I particularily dislike, but performed by Alexander Lycke. Not surprisingly at all, I like the song so much better this way. One's enjoyment of a musical with only two characters has, obviously, a lot to do with how one likes the actors in the parts. With two favourites onstage, maybe I'll enjoy this one after all? Curious to find that out next week.

Musical's logo by Pette Rissanen.
Good news for The Last 5 Years fans: a movie based on the musical is premiering on Valentine's Day 2015.