Sunday, November 30, 2014

Meeting Count Dracula

It began, as many good things have, with Turun kaupunginteatteri's Jekyll & Hyde.

What do you do when a musical you love closes and you cannot watch it live again? Wallow in sadness and nostalgia, probably... but maybe also search Youtube for videos from other productions? That's what I and my friend did after seeing our last Jekyll & Hyde last spring. And after watching all manner of disappointing and bizarre bootlegs of Dr. Jekyll's story, we turned our attention to other musicals by Frank Wildhorn.

We watched Dracula, but that was hardly the reason we spent last weekend in Pforzheim, Germany. Instead, The Scarlet Pimpernel's to blame.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is not a good musical. The German production we found on Youtube was, we thought, largely horrendous goo. The mix of humor and drama was imbalanced, half of the cast not to our tastes, the amount of boring love songs almost unbearable, the plot almost incomprehensible. A complete mess, to be honest.

But in the middle of all that awful, there was this awesome-meets-insane revolutionary character who opposed the titular hero in a really sarcastic, determined, energetic manner. During one glorious scene, he even climbed on a table and wrapped himself in the flag of the republic while loudly shouting about his mission.

After suffering through the rest of the musical, we had to find out more about Chris Murray.

It turned out Youtube's full of Murray's performances. After marathoning some videos, it turned out we like him in pretty much everything he's done. And so, in less than two months after finding out the man exists, we booked our tickets to see him live in Theater Pforzheim. As Count Dracula in the Wildhorn musical, no less.

I have a love-hate relationship with Frank Wildhorn's musicals.

I don't really like any of them. They're all full of plot holes, silly lyrics and songs already featured in other shows. No matter which show, half of the songs sound the same. But a good production can sometimes transform the mediocre material, and that's where the love stems from.

Pforzheim's Dracula did something right. The show's still what it is, with its endless love songs and predictable melodrama... But it's also good. I found the direction's balance in between serious and silly perfect, and the characters felt more interesting than I thought was possible. The whole show was better than I expected it could be.

Seeing a solid production of the musical was an additional bonus, though. We were there for one reason.

It was odd seeing someone live I've only seen in videos before. Being a fan of Finnish musicals, this doesn't happen, since there are no bootlegs of Finnish theatre online. Sometimes, you can see Finnish TV or movie actors onstage, but that's hardly the same as seeing someone live whose stage musical performances you have already watched.

Chris Murray was just as amazing live as on recordings.

I didn't have words back in Pforzheim. Now, a week later, I still don't.

He was good.

It was nice really going to a German theatre after being a fan of German musicals for years. It was almost as fun observing the audience as it was watching the show. The applause and especially the curtain call were really enthusiastic, that's something we reserved Finns aren't used to. It was also fun going to the stagedoor after the show to actually meet our favourite performer. That's another rather foreign thing to us reserved Finns...

Maybe I should also say something about the musical itself.

I got the feeling the creative team had read their Dracula the novel. The character of Professor van Helsing, played by Jon Geoffrey Goldsworthy, felt particularily true to the book. What's more, the production made me invested in characters I didn't think I could care for. Hats off to Thomas Christ for a touching portrayal of Jonathan Harker – thanks for making shivers run down my spine during what I used to think was the most boring solo of the whole show.

This was a musical trip to remember. I'm crossing my fingers this wasn't my last time in a German theatre. And I hope it wasn't my last time seeing Chris Murray live, either!

To end this post, here are three of my favourite Chris Murray videos. I went to Pforzheim after watching these. Let me know if they take you on a journey, too.

The best Falcon in the Dive ever.

My favourite Confrontation. (Watch the full show for the ultimate experience.)

Okay, this is an audio recording, but nevertheless – my favourite song from Dracula.

Photos from Theater Pforzheim's Facebook.
Also check out: another review of the production.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Countdown to Dracula

I'm going to see Dracula the musical in Germany next weekend.

I'm not a Dracula fan. As I mentioned a while ago, I didn't even finish the book. I don't really adore the musical, either – it's nice, but not on my favourites list. Instead, it's the man playing the Count who made me want to book the flights... but more about that later.

In any case, I've been trying to get into the right mindset before the vampire trip. My bedtime stories have consisted fully of Dracula during the past few weeks. Now, I'm going to share the two gems I've read with you!

Major, major spoilers ahead.

The first book I read was Dracula's "official sequel", Dracula the Un-Dead by the original author's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker and screenwriter Ian Holt.

This book is incredible. It's the very worst book I've ever read in my life.

Some books are bad because they're boring. But not Dracula the Un-Dead! It has a fast tempo and many, many exciting events – it hits a new, unbelievable low every five pages. My friends who saw me reading it can attest that during some of the twists and turns, facepalming with both hands wasn't enough. Every now and then, I had to rest my head on the table for a moment to calm down.

The book is set 25 years after the events of Dracula. It shows what has happened to the characters from the classic novel, and also introduces a couple of new faces. Like Mina and Jonathan's son Quincey Harker, the serial killers Elizabeth Báthory and Jack the Ripper, a Romanian actor called Basarab who's totally not a vampire count at all...

Dracula the Un-Dead is a wild ride that takes every chance to insult the reader's intelligence.

We find out that Mina has stayed young all these years because, having drunk Dracula's blood that one time, she now has immortality coursing through her veins. She's also still in love with her "Dark Prince".

And indeed, she has every reason to adore Dracula. Did you know that the Count was good all along? He only drinks blood from criminals and proclaims himself as a warrior of God. How about his fear of holy symbols? Nah, Bram Stoker just got that wrong in his book. Yes, good ol' Bram appears as a character in Dracula the Un-Dead. It is revealed he didn't come up with the plot of his famous novel himself at all. Instead, he got it from some drunk he met at a bar.

The drunk later turns out to be Professor van Helsing. Who then turns into a vampire, and enjoys the feeling of being undead.

In the grand finale of the story, we have Dracula telling "I am your father" to Mina's son. After this totally unpredictable revelation, the remaining handful of the novel's cast fall of a cliff. Heck, the bodycount simply wasn't high enough already! People were trampled, staked, decapitated, burned or bitten only once per every ten pages. The only character to survive is Dracula Junior.

As an epilogue, the son of Dracula wants to start a new life in the United States – and boards the RMS Titanic to travel across the Atlantic.

The authors' notes at the end make it clear this is not a parody.

Official sequel indeed. If the co-author was anyone else but Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew, I'm certain this book would have never hit the shelves. I'm kind of glad it did, though, because you rarely get to read a real printed book as crazy as this one.

To rinse the official sequel out of my brain, I returned to an old favourite. When I was younger, I loved Angela Sommer-Bodenburg's Anton und der kleine Vampir: Die Reise zu Graf Dracula, or The Little Vampire Meets Count Dracula.

The Little Vampire series is about Anton, whose best friend Rüdiger is a vampire. This installment focuses on Anton and his family's trip to Transylvania. Rüdiger has just moved to the land of his ancestors, and Anton wishes their paths will cross during the vacation. The friends indeed meet each other again, and Anton gets invited to a vampire party – a party the famous Count Dracula will also attend.

I wasn't a vampire enthusiast as a kid, but rereading this book, I now understad why I enjoyed it so much. Anton and his family's trip to Romania strongly reminds me of my own family's trips around Europe when I was younger! Endless car rides, sleeping my way through the countryside, seeing sights and staying in hotels and the feeling of being away from home... It's all here.

Reading this ten years ago, I didn't pay attention to the way the novel describes Romania. Now, it feels so dated it's almost funny. I suppose things were different in 1993 when the book was released. But the way the writing heavily underlines the sad state of Romanian plumbing, awful cuisine and hideous poverty of the people... I'd say the novel is a product of its time.

It's more than a travel journal, though. The central conflict of the story is actually about Anton being a human while is friends are immortal. 

Our young hero is deeply fascinated by vampires, but he's determined not to become one. His best friend Rüdiger and Rüdiger's little sister Anna were both bitten at a young age. Anton could choose to stay a child forever and spend an eternity with his best friends (and his vampire friends do remind him of this possibility). But no. Anton has decided to grow up, to live his human life. To embrace his mortality.

At the end of the book, the vampire siblings leave for a journey with their new mentor, Count Dracula. They don't know when they'll return, or if they'll ever come back to Germany where Anton lives. It might take years before the friends meet again. Who knows if Anton will be old when they next see each other – old, while his childhood friends are still and forever young?

The characters actually point this out. At one point, Anna is worried that Anton is changing because he's growing up. I admit I felt genuinely sad while reading this.

When comparing the two sequels I've read, The Little Vampire Meets Count Dracula is by far the more adult and profound story, that's what I'm trying to say.

Also that Dracula the Un-Dead is crap.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Christine of the Opera

Teater Vanemuine's take on The Phantom of the Opera is something new. And when it comes to Phantom, new is a big deal – only a handful of directors have ever been allowed to stage their own vision of the most popular musical of all times.

I'm so happy I got the chance to see this brand-new version of the classic. The Estonian production, directed by Georg Malvius, made me see the iconic story from a fresh point of view.

This production focuses on Christine's story. The young soprano is truely the heroine of the tale, with the men as her supporting players. Christine's growth as an artist and as a person are at the center of the story.

I really, really liked that. It was also refreshing to see the love triangle aspect of the story toned down.

In the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, I see the two leading men representing two different kinds of love Christine has to choose in between. Will she pick the romantic, safe, naïve relationship, or the sensual, mysterious, exciting one?

In the Estonian production, I felt none of that. It is clear that Christine's only true love, body and soul, is Raoul. She is drawn to the Phantom because he tricks her into believing he's a real angel of music, not because of any infatuation. When it turns out he is not an angel at all, her feelings are overpowered by fear.

I liked this. It made the Phantom's love towards Christine even more tragic, and Christine's ultimate choice made a bigger impact on me here as well. Since Christine seemed to have no romantic or sexual feelings towards the Phantom, her sacrifice during the final scene felt greater than in the original. Her love for Raoul was her sole motivation for choosing to spend a lifetime with the Phantom – a man she has learned to fear.

Of course, much of this is present in the original already. But the different nuances this production gives to the story made these points stand out to me. And you know what? I think I prefer the story the Estonian production tells to the original. I like how Malvius's direction doesn't pit romance and sexuality against each other on any symbolic level. And to be honest, this is the first time I've really felt the Phantom learning what love means when Christine kisses him.

And that kiss! Instead of a big kiss on the lips like in the original, Christine seals her decision by kissing the Phantom on his deformed cheek. A lovely nod back to the original novel by Gaston Leroux – and, for me, a much more effective moment than the original. The first act of compassion the Phantom's ever experienced felt so genuine and so selfless here.

I also liked how Christine and Raoul's relationship isn't perfect, though it is clear they love each other. After Raoul gives his little speech about every hope and prayer resting on Christine's shoulders (no pressure!), he tries to kiss her – and she pushes him away, leaving the scene. I loved that little moment. Raoul is not a perfect dashing suitor. He makes mistakes too, and Christine isn't afraid to show him if he has made one. And yet, true love prevails in the end.

To say Maria Listra is absolutely fantastic as Christine is a bit of an understatement. It's partially because of her stage presence that the focus is so strongly on Christine. I adored Listra in the role, both acting and especially singing-wise. She sang her part so beautifully. Chills ran down my spine during the whole Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, and judging by the huge applause, I wasn't the only one. I don't have a single bad word to say about her.

Stephen Hansen made an interesting Phantom. The character isn't easy to like, nor as suave as in the original. He tries to offer Christine the best he can, but he's clearly far too isolated from society to function in it properly anymore. Threatening yet awkward, a deranged genius meets a pitiable lost soul. The ending of Final Lair, with the Phantom coming to terms with what love means, touched me. Vocally, Hansen isn't as impressive as some of the Phantoms I've heard – but a fascinating portrayal nevertheless.  

Koit Toome's Raoul is a nice balance for the creepy Phantom. Nice, handsome, normal, yet also brave and a bit hot-headed. A guy you'd like to know. Someone you would feel safe being with.

I like how comic relief is added to the Phantom's story a bit more subtly than the usual musical way of slapping a huge funny song in the middle of suspense. I tend to enjoy the scenes with La Carlotta and the managers of the opera house, and I liked them here, too.

Lauri Liiv (familiar to us Finnish musical fans for his amazing portrayals of Enjolras and Bamatabois in Tampereen Teatteri's Les Mis, and therefore someone I paid special attention to) and Priit Strandberg as Messieurs Firmin and André do a good job lightening up the mood. I also really enjoyed Kristina Vähi's Carlotta. A true prima donna in every way, from her gorgeous singing to her perfect diva attitude. A force to be reckoned with!

Visually, the original Phantom is the most gorgeous show out there. Compared to the glitter and glamour of West End and Broadway, everything else is underwhelming. But, trying to forget that for a moment, I think this production looked nice. Not amazing, but not too bad either.

I quite liked the costumes by Ellen Cairns. I think they suit the characters well enough and actually look a bit better onstage than in pictures. My favourites include Carlotta and Piangi's couple costumes in Masquerade, with them attending the ball as the Queen of the Hearts and the White Rabbit. And say what you might, I think the Phantom looks good in a leather jacket!

The sets by Iir Hermeliin have their moments, but some of the key scenes were disappointments. The small and very slow-falling chandelier, the Phantom's odd space-age lair, the burrito-like pocket in front of the rooftop angel statue. Not really to my tastes. Putting the lake Phantom and Christine cross during the title scene on a bridge high above the stage is a nice touch, though. And the very end of the show looks very effective, I'd say more so than in the original.

The music, then, sounds absolutely gorgeous. A big orchestra combined with the fantastic voices in the cast... This is what a musical should sound like.

I've talked about how I love seeing the original Phantom for the smoke and the mirrors, but don't really get that much out of the story or the performances there. Watching this production, I felt the other way around. The visuals were not all that stunning, but I suddenly felt more for the characters.

I'm not saying Malvius's direction was perfect. Some scenes lacked suspense, some felt a bit confusing or awkward. But forgetting about minor faults and considering the story as a whole, I got more out of this vision than the original.

Wonder, then, what the Finnish non-replica version will have in store for us next fall?

Photos by Iir Hermelin and Tõnis Järs, from Vanemuine's website and Facebook. Hover over the photos for specific info.