Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Nordic Reviews: Jekyll & Hyde

Please note: this review contains spoilers for both Jekyll & Hyde the musical and Det Ny Teater’s production.

Jekyll & Hyde in Det Ny Teater, Copenhagen, is a chilling tale.

Director Daniel Bohr has transported the familiar story of a doctor and his evil alter ego into a Victorian mental asylum, with psychiatric patients acting as the musical's chorus. Luckily, the decision is more than a visual gimmick. The theme of mental illness permeates the whole musical, creating a very unique version of the show. The production invites the audience into a dark universe without much hope, broken people populating the streets of London. It’s a surprisingly serious version of a musical that usually requires more tongue in cheek to function.

The show has a stationary set designed by Paul Farnsworth. The scene resembles an old surgical theatre, with a part of the audience sitting onstage. The effect is nice, but acting-wise, it results in some awkward spinning around as actors try to make sure all audience members can see them. Farnsworth’s visuals are light in colour but unsettling in tone, costumes combining elements from straitjackets to Victorian-era styles and moon shining through broken windows.

Tomas Ambt Kofod as Jekyll and Hyde is a slight disappointment. He has a lovely voice, but the way he portrays the role, part idealistic yet bland young doctor and part Captain Jack Sparrow… The Sparrow-ish antics, energetic movements and intoxicated glee might have been entertaining in some lighter-hearted production that focuses on the show’s campy aspects. In a somber version such as this one, the portrayal feels out of place. Before seeing it, I was afraid the Danish Jekyll & Hyde was going to be completely humourless. Having seen the show, I would’ve preferred no humour at all to the misplaced cheerfulness of Hyde here.

Exploring the theme further, this production would have benefited from a decidedly scary, deranged, dangerous portrayal of Hyde. I enjoy it when Hyde enjoys the murders, and showing him having fun makes sense – but instead of the almost childish delight, this production would have needed darker, disturbing, sensual joy. Apart from Lucy’s murder, Hyde didn’t scare me. With mental patients energetically dancing around him during Alive… The choreography is nice, but being the biggest bully in your mental institution is hardly the most menacing thing you could be.

Camille-Cathrine Rommedahl’s Emma is a fascinating, sorrowful character. Here, Jekyll's fiancée Emma is mentally very fragile. She seems frightened, unbalanced, unstable. With her condition in mind, Sir Danvers’s (Carl Christian Rasmussen) need to protect her makes a lot more sense than usually, as does Jekyll and Emma’s duet Take Me as I Am. Emma has problems with her mental health, Jekyll carries his own baggage with incurable illness running in the family… A Frank Wildhorn love duet given poignant meaning. Would you believe that?

As the show progresses and London turns more dangerous, we see Emma getting more distraught too, with Sir Danvers having to calm her down. Finally, Jekyll’s death is too much for her and she is dragged away screaming. And yet Rommedahl’s portrayal also has its moments of joy and sunshine, moments where you can understand how she caught Jekyll’s attention in the first place. I had no idea Emma could be this fascinating and layered – and I’ve already seen some brilliant takes on the character. A fine, fine portrayal!

Julie Steincke’s Lucy, then, is Emma’s polar opposite, not only in the stereotypical sense of occupation and social standing but also mental-health-wise. This Lucy has a healthy head on her shoulders, a sharp and realistic outlook on life. Steincke makes Lucy feel like a real woman whose only folly is daring to dream at the wrong time. Out of the main characters, Lucy is the only one whose costumes don’t feature allusions to straitjackets. She would have made it out hurt but, ultimately, mentally healthy – had Hyde only been a little slower to arrive. (Her costumes, though… Imagine a caricature of a Romani girl, like Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, sometimes with slightly shorter skirts. What’s up with that?)

Here, it is very easy to see why Lucy dreams of Jekyll. He treats her like a lady from the very first without making a fuss out of it, calling her Miss Harris and offering her wine like any of his usual guests. Small wonder a gentleman like that fills the dreams of a woman who usually faces nothing but abuse. Even my heart fluttered a little! This is also the first production of Jekyll & Hyde I know of where Hyde explicitly confesses to being Jekyll – by taking on Jekyll’s intonation and calling her Miss Harris again – before murdering Lucy. A terrifying moment. If only Hyde could’ve been this frightening all the way through.

Kurt Ravn, who plays Utterson, is a well-known actor in Denmark. Ever since the new production of Jekyll & Hyde was announced last spring, I’ve been amused by Det Ny Teater’s way of advertising him (for example, see this article based on the theatre’s press release, with a silly promotional photo included. How many other Jekyll & Hyde promos are there featuring Utterson? None, I can assure you. I’ve been looking). Kurt Ravn is back on musical stage! As G. J. Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s level-headed friend. Woo hoo!

I wonder if Ravn’s fans are a little disappointed by this role. He plays the part well, sure, but Utterson’s not exactly the main role of the show. He only sings in two songs… Oh well. The character has a special place in my heart, and I certainly enjoyed Ravn’s interpretation. A calm, easygoing gentleman with unwavering support for his best friend. Ravn is a fair bit older than Ambt Kofod, so the pair’s relationship is like an older brother and his favourite little brother. While the performance is nothing too exciting nor unique, Ravn makes his character very easy to like. I also wonder if I’ve ever heard Utterson’s short part sung this nicely. (Being the morbid weirdo I am, I by the way liked this production’s decision of making Utterson shoot Jekyll. That bullet also went through my heart, in the good way.)

Moving on – to Spider, of all characters. Kim Hammelsvang Henriksen’s Spider was one of the happiest surprises in the production. The Red Rat’s pimp is a remnant of an earlier version of the musical’s script (he was originally the evil side of Simon Stride). Usually, he's a pretty boring character. In most current versions of the show, Spider threatens Lucy in two scenes, sings a couple of unnecessary reprises of Facade and disappears. Not this time! Not quite existing in the same reality as the rest of the characters, this Spider is the Che to Jekyll/Hyde’s Evita.

That is bad news for me. I have a huge soft spot for narrator figures in musicals, the snarkier and creepier the better… So I’m kind of in love with Spider now. Shoot.

At first, Spider performs his usual pimp’s duties in The Red Rat, mistreating Lucy and skulking around. When Hyde is born, Spider first acts as a sort of an underling to him, mostly staying out of the action but giving him a helping hand every now and then, cheering him on, periodically narrating and commenting the story via Facade’s reprises. In the second act, Spider’s presence grows stronger, with him observing the action and breaking the fourth wall. We see him taking notes of Hyde’s murders and then throwing his papers in the air when Jekyll meets his fate in the final scene. I didn’t really understand what the note-taking was all about, but I still enjoyed the character’s attitude – by the end, he is clearly enjoying the chaos and mayhem for chaos and mayhem’s sake. Actually, he seems a fair bit more dangerous than Hyde.

All in all, I’m glad to see what this production has done to the usually useless character. With someone as charismatic as Henriksen in the role, the interpretation is a joy to watch.

The production also features another narrator-type character. A mental asylum director played by Michael Lindvad opens the first act with Jekyll’s lines about good and evil and begins the wedding scene with Utterson’s lines about Jekyll. He also observes Jekyll/Hyde from the background during many scenes. I was actually looking forward to some great reveal that would justify his presence – maybe Jekyll, I am your real father, or I was R. L. Stevenson the whole time – but no. I felt the inclusion of this new character distracting at best. The show would have been better off if pimp-turned-narrator Spider delivered the hospital director character’s few lines. Unless they could be given back to Jekyll and Utterson or cut altogether, that is.

Overall, this production isn’t really Jekyll’s story. Instead, it is a story about how one person’s disastrous decisions affect the people around him. How good intentions can lead to hell. In the first scene, we see Jekyll trying to help his father in a mental asylum. In the finale, his death is too much for Emma and Utterson. Both are taken into a mental institution. So in a way, Jekyll dooms both his fiancée and his best friend to similar hopeless existence he tried to rescue his father from.

Lying to his best friend without a moment's consideration and keeping secrets from his bride until her already fragile mental health breaks, it is easy to disapprove of this Jekyll’s selfishness. But which one of us wouldn’t try to protect our own hide? It is easier to work for the common good and the betterment of mankind on an abstract scale, be it via creating a new medicine or donating to charity, than it is to admit our own mistakes and make personal sacrifices for our loved ones’ sake. Jekyll doesn’t have enough courage to do what’s right.

Usually, I see Jekyll’s final act of taking his own life (though via Utterson’s hands) as a selfless one. Here, I’m not quite so sure. Thinking of what 19th century mental institutions could be like… I wonder if it’s Jekyll who has it easy, after all. Mind broken but young and physically healthy, what kind of a life is Emma going to have? Could her and Utterson’s downfalls have been avoided if Jekyll had confessed earlier? Or are all their fates sealed the moment Jekyll first lets the repressed part of his personality loose?

Jekyll & Hyde is an interesting and worthwhile musical because it gives each new cast and creative team so much freedom. Every director working on the musical comes up with their own solutions to make up for the script’s weak aspects. The Danish cast and creative team have created a dark, disturbing, somber universe. The production deals with responsibility, cause and effect, and the way people affect each other – or, at least, that’s what it makes me think about. Det Ny Teater’s Jekyll & Hyde is a thought-provoking version of Frank Wildhorn’s entertaining yet flawed musical.

No small feat, no small feat indeed. I applaud you, director Daniel Bohr and the cast and crew of this production. The show will keep haunting me for a while, in the best way.

Photos by Miklos Szabo.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Helsinki Vampires

This is the new Finnish production of Tanz der Vampire reviewed from a fan's perspective. If you speak Finnish and wish to read a more concise review, you can read for example this, this or this

Please note: Helsingin kaupunginteatteri invited me to see Vampyyrien tanssi for free. 

Spoiler warning: major spoilers for the musical and the production.

I'm not a super hardcore Tanz der Vampire fan. I haven't seen any productions outside Finland and I don't really like watching bootlegs of the show. I don't find the movie the musical is based on especially interesting. But even so, Tanz der Vampire is one of my favourite musicals. I loved the first Finnish production, I think the music is fantastic, and the characters fascinate me.

So, from that point of view, let's discuss Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's Vampyyrien tanssi.

Tanz der Vampire parodies classic vampire stories (synopsis here, in case you're not familiar with it). The script offers possibilites for dark and deep interpretations, but Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's new production strongly emphasises the humorous aspects of the story. It's over-the-top, energetic, fast-paced and, above all, really funny. A non-replica production, it's got its own unique vibe and a lovely tongue-in-cheek tone.

Before I get started on the cast, I want to applaud the visual designers of the production: costume designer Elina Kolehmainen, set designers Jani Uljas and Jari Ijäs, lighting designer William Iles and the whole wigs and makeup team. They have turned the small and cramped Peacock Theatre into a detailed vampire world. The stage is small and there's apparently hardly any storage space, so every wall and staircase has multiple uses in the well thought-out set. Every vampire has their own look and personality.

There are some details I do not like in Markku Nenonen's direction and choreography, but as a whole, I think the show is extremely enjoyable and has a good flow all the way through. The orchestra, conducted by Eeva Kontu, sounds grand – the only thing that bothers me is the backing track they use for the Latin chorus in Carpe Noctem. I wonder if this production uses the same crummy one that's used on every cast recording of the show since 1997. At least the quality of the recording sounds as poor as always... Other than nitpicks, I think the show sounds great.

The production premiered on February 3rd. During the first week, I saw it three times. Next up, my thoughts on the production's two alternate casts.

Raili Raitala and Mikko Vihma

Count von Krolock: Mikko Vihma / Jonas Saari

Mikko Vihma is a good fit for the role of Count von Krolock: he looks, sounds and acts the part of an aristocratic vampire. He has a beautiful voice and enough charisma to send shivers down the audience's spines. Vihma's performance includes both menacing moments and a healthy dose of tongue in cheek, him wearing his glittering costume with confidence.

Jonas Saari's take on the Count, then, is rather subdued. His von Krolock starts out as a distant, almost gentle being, and he also sings the part surprisingly softly. The performance takes a sharp turn for the darker during the midnight ball – von Krolock's treatment of Sarah is even crueler than I expected.

I think Vihma's take on the character suits the tone of this production better. He's more over-the-top, with a stronger stage presence, and I also think he has stronger chemistry with his castmates. Saari's portrayal isn't without its merits and he gives me more food for thought, but ultimately I think his von Krolock would feel more at home in some darker, subtler production of the musical.

Raili Raitala

Sarah: Raili Raitala / Anna Victoria Eriksson

Raili Raitala played Sarah in Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri's production of the musical, and I liked her back then already. I still like her, though some nuances in her portrayal contradict my own interpretation of the character. Raitala's Sarah is very strong-minded and independent – I find her almost too cold and calculating. It feels to me she purely sees Alfred as a way out of her boring life. It's of course a valid interpretation, but I prefer Sarah to have a little bit more naïveté. Her fear and regret in the vampire ball, however, are heartbreaking to watch.

To me, Anna Victoria Eriksson's Sarah is as close to perfection as you can get. She makes the character more naïve and vulnerable than Raitala, yet without losing a bit of her willfulness. To her, Alfred is an okay guy, someone she might like hanging out with under different circumstances – it just happens that right now, the vampire count is more interesting. Personally, I prefer this interpretation of the character.

Vocally, you couldn't ask for anything better. They're both perfect.

Miiko Toiviainen

Alfred: Petrus Kähkönen / Miiko Toiviainen

I like both Alfreds a lot. Though the production heavily emphasises the funny moments, both Kähkönen and Toiviainen still manage to make Alfred deeply human. Both also sing the part beautifully, Kähkönen's take on Alfred's big solo Für Sarah is especially gorgeous. Judging by the applause, I think everyone in the audience shares my feelings.

Alfred is the everyman of the story, a young man that gets dragged along on an increasingly weird adventure. With these two portrayals, I feel the pieces click together by the end and you get the feeling Alfred has completed his character arc. It's hard to put that thought into words, but I enjoyed both performances and look forward to seeing them again so I can pay even closer attention to details.

Antti Timonen and Petrus Kähkönen

Professor Abronsius: Antti Timonen / Tuukka Leppänen

Ah, my heart!! Who even cares about the vampire count, I'm now a sworn member of Team Abronsius. Both Timonen and Leppänen blew me away with their hilarious, charming and energetic performances of the character. I didn't know I could like Abronsius quite this much!

I especially enjoy Alfred's moments with Professor Abronsius. Both Alfred & Abronsius duos are hilarious foils for Count von Krolock's evil (they somehow remind me of the 1960s TV series Batman and Robin). Both Professors have good chemistry with their respective Alfreds and plenty of laugh-out loud moments. In the performances I saw, team Timonen and Kähkönen shone especially brightly. I loved watching Kähkönen's Alfred getting more and more fed up with the Professor's antics, with Timonen's Abronsius either not getting it or simply not caring.

It seems to me the actors have fun in their roles, and in turn, their performances are plenty of fun to watch. I can't say which Abronsius I prefer, I find both of them equally amazing. I just wish to see both again as soon as possible!

Laura Alajääski and Risto Kaskilahti

Chagal: Risto Kaskilahti / Kari Mattila

Risto Kaskilahti tries so very hard to be funny and fails at every attempt. He hogs the spotlight in every scene he's in, making the character of Chagal feel annoying and out-of-place. Kaskilahti delivered a touching portrayal of Billy's Dad in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's recent production of Billy Elliot. Shame none of that subtlety and good taste is left for this role.

Kari Mattila's Chagal, then, gets two thumbs up from me. He has some genuinely funny moments and makes the character surprisingly three-dimensional. This is the Chagal a good production such as this one deserves.

Rebecca: Leenamari Unho

Unho's Rebecca is, happily, not of the ugly hag type so many productions feature – instead, she's a rather charming sight with garlic decorating her hairdo. She gives a solid but not especially memorable performance of the character.

Sanna Majuri and Kari Mattila

Magda: Laura Alajääski / Sanna Majuri

I've written about the troubling aspects of Magda's character arc previously. In short: I think it's disturbing how the show first presents her as a victim of Chagal's unwanted advances and then makes her give in to him in the second act. I'm glad this production subverts some of the cringiest parts of the character's story.

Both Helsinki Magdas are spunky and strong-willed. When Magda and Chagal are turned into vampires, we see her berating him and showing him that it's she who's in charge. She befriends Herbert early on, inviting the vampires to rise from their graves together with him during Ewigkeit.

In short, this Magda is in charge of her own destiny, as much as it is possible without changing the script. Both Alajääski and Majuri also have beautiful, powerful voices. So I'm a fan!

Samuel Harjanne and Jonas Saari

Herbert: Samuel Harjanne

Harjanne's entrance as Herbert is one of the highlights of the first act. Never mind that he only spends something like 30 seconds onstage during the first act finale – he enters with such a grand swoosh of his cape that it's a sight to remember.

The second-act portion of the performance is good, but I don't think it's quite as memorable as the grand entrance. There is however an interestingly Frank-N-Furter-ish aspect to Herbert's character here, what with him wearing a glittery corset for his and Alfred's duet and getting it on with gentlemen and ladies alike during the course of the second act.

Overall, a fun yet not overly over-the-top version of the character.

Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's Vampyyrien tanssi ends with the Professor getting bitten and then learning the steps to the vampires' dance alongside the Count and all the other characters. I love love love that. At the same time, it's the ultimate antithesis to traditional happy endings with lofty morals – and a perfect feel-good finale.

If you're a vampire fan and are able to take a trip to Helsinki before April 27th, do it.

This production is worth it.

Photos by Mirka Kleemola.
Lue myös: Vampyyrien tanssin suomentaneen Marika Hakolan haastattelu