Saturday, November 4, 2017

Nordic Reviews: Les Mis in Oslo

This autumn in Oslo's Folketeateret, Scenekvelder has put together a memorable production of Les Misérables.

At surface, it seems like a well-made if not very imaginative production of good ol' Les Mis: the music sounds good and all the leading actors have beautiful voices, there are big emotions and lots of people onstage, the sets are grand and the costumes suitably ragged.

Under the surface, it's actually the oddest and most unfocused production of Les Mis I've ever seen.

Let's take a look.

André Søfteland as Jean Valjean and Hans Marius Hoff Mittet as Javert

The new Norwegian production of Les Mis is directed by Per-Olav Sørensen. According to his bio in the souvenir programme, he has directed plenty of theatre, films and TV. No mention of any further stage musicals, though, and maybe it's no wonder – seeing this show, it feels like mega musicals might not be his best genre.

First of all, the pacing of this production is strikingly slow. The music is in a way slower tempo than we're used to in contemporary productions of Les Mis. Everyone also takes their sweet time getting from place A to place B. For example, you know how Enjolras usually rushes onstage in One Day More, giving an energetic, dynamic impression? Here, he calmly walks to take his place downstage. There are many scenes where the pace is similarly sluggish, though the music and lyrics suggest fast action.

Considering that, it's odd how all the way through, the direction is really, really afraid of giving anyone any quiet time alone.

There's some unnecessary action going on during every other iconic solo of the show: Fantine changes into her prostitute costume in the middle of I Dreamed a Dream, Valjean gathers up firearms while singing Bring Him Home... It's as if the production doesn't really trust the source material, thinking people will get bored unless multiple things happen simultaneously all the time.

The production has a huge ensemble and they're onstage a lot. Sometimes they simply hang out in the background while someone else sings a solo or a duet. That's really odd. It feels like they're breaking some unwritten rule of musical theatre.

Usually, if there are others onstage during a solo, they're either a) listening to what the character has to say, like the Argentinians in Don't Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, b) are meant to signify something, like when Les Amis appear during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables as a visual representation of Marius's memories, or c) are backup dancers.

But when you have, say, beggars sitting on street corners while Javert sings his heart out in Stars... What is their purpose in the scene? Do they relate to Javert somehow? Do they hear what he says, and if so, why don't they seem to care? Or the nuns that appear in Confrontation, calmly wrapping Fantine's body in a sheet while Jean Valjean and Javert yell at each other – why don't they do something to stop the fight, or at least act scared or annoyed?

Why can't the main characters have these moments alone?

Hans Marius Hoff Mittet as Javert and Haddy Njie as Fantine

In general, I think the production's biggest issue is the lack of focus. Some productions have a way of leading the audience's gaze to the right spot and the right character in every scene. Here, so much is happening you don't know where to watch.

In the souvenir programme, director Sørensen boasts that they have almost twice as many people onstage as an average production of Les Mis. He thinks it makes the whole thing more impressive. I disagree. Maybe, if the director had some good use for the extra ensemble, it really would be striking – but as is, it seems they're there just for grandness' sake. Not impressed.

Granted, Folketeateret has a huge stage, both wide and deep, and I'm sure it has been a big challenge coming up with ways to fill the space. I have a feeling, though, that both sets (design by Petr Hlousek) and lighting (design by Reidar Andreas Richardsen) could have been used a bit more effectively to divide the big space into smaller compartments. The lighting design is actually sort of disappointing – with lots of hard edges and cold tones, I think it would seem more at home in some small-scale onstage adaptation of a Nordic noir novel.

On the right, Karin Park as Fantine

In his essay in the souvenir programme, director Sørensen says this production is all about realism. The thing is, I don't think Les Misérables is meant to be a realistic musical. To function as it should, I believe it requires a dash of melodrama, a touch of something grand and noble.

In most productions, the way the characters' deaths are handled underlines the romantic undertone of the story. If the deaths are all majestic, like the iconic tableau of Enjolras lying on the barricade, it does not feel out of place when the characters rise from the dead in the musical's finale. But here, the whole epilogue is like from some other musical. After they unceremoniously roll Fantine into a sheet and dump Éponine in a sewer, it does not seem right they come back to welcome Valjean into the afterlife.

This production is strongly reminiscent of the 2012 movie adaptation of Les Mis, both visually (the costume design by Oddfrid Ropstad especially) and direction-wise. I get the feeling Sørensen has watched the Tom Hooper film one time too many and tried bringing its brand of gritty realism onstage, without stopping to think whether the style Hooper chose actually benefits the source material or not.
Don't get me wrong, the direction is not all bad. There are many good little details – like Cosette recognising the Thénardiers in the wedding – but sadly, it's the weird moments that stick out.

I'm not going to make a full list, but here are three details that I found the silliest: Javert, who otherwise seems like a calm dude, straight up punches Jean Valjean not once but twice; Valjean reveals his true identity in the court by taking off his wig (must be hard being the only bald guy in all of France); in Paris, Marius follows Cosette around from one poor person to next and they end up wiping the same beggar's face.

As far as I can tell, the cast is all good, it's just that oftentimes the directional decisions distracted me from focusing on the performances themselves. I wish I could tell you what André Søfteland's Valjean is like, but I really had a hard time concentrating on him with so many other weird things happening and so many other people onstage.

I did like Javert, though.

I got the vibe I would absolutely adore Hans Marius Hoff Mittet's portrayal of the character in some other production, or even here, if I got to see him again from the front row instead of the balcony. He had a nice undertone of calmness and introspection going on. That's something you don't see all that often these days, with so many overstatedly angry Javerts out there. Both Hoff Mittet's voice and his performance reminded me of the Finnish Sören Lillkung, a longtime favourite Javert of mine. So thumbs up!

Andreas Hoff as Enjolras

Besides Javert, there is an another, more surprising upside to this.

To me, the most interesting thing in the whole show was the relationship in between the revolutionary Enjolras (played by Andreas Hoff) and the revolution's token sceptic Grantaire (Lasse Vermeli). In Hugo's original novel, many interpret Grantaire being unrequitedly in love with Enjolras, but here, the feelings are mutual.

It's a thing in the Les Mis fandom, wanting to see these two characters together. This production got the memo.

In the first act, Enjolras uses a lot of time convincing Grantaire the revolution's worth joining – most notably singing his whole verse in One Day More to Grantaire and Grantaire alone. At the same time, he teaches him how to shoot a gun, in the romantic comedy trope sort of way. You know, standing unnecessarily close to him, gently taking his hands to correct the way he holds the weapon. This goes on throughout the song.

In the second act, they fight, they make up, they hold hands. When the barricade is about to fall, Enjolras bids Grantaire the most heartbreaking farewell in musical history by taking his hands and kissing them. Ah, my heart, this is worse than Titanic! Then, in the finale, Grantaire rushes to join Enjolras, and the two of them once again stand side by side in the afterlife. Good for them, and good for Grantaire especially. It must be hard being in love with someone who clearly loves you back, but loves the revolution even more.

But all that said... Well, being a fan, I enjoyed seeing Enjolras and Grantaire's romance flourish onstage, it certainly made the production more fun to watch. At the same time, though, I think it stripped Enjolras of the role he's supposed to play. He's not onstage a lot, he only has a couple of scenes to convince the people of Paris (and also the audience) that the revolution is worth dying for. How can he do that when they make him spend most of his time telling his sceptic boyfriend it'll be nice dying together? They're a cute couple, but seriously, that's not what Enjolras is supposed to be doing.

Lasse Vermeli as Grantaire

In short, I suppose if you've never seen Les Mis before, this production works okay.

The show looks good and sounds good, the iconic songs are of course all there, you get a grasp of what the story's about. If you're a big fan of Les Misérables the movie, you'll probably like this too, it's so obviously inspired by Tom Hooper's vision. The whole thing is very big and grandiose, if that's your thing. But if you're like me and know the original stage musical by heart, I'm certain you'll be struck by the weird pacing and the absurdity of the details.

I'm glad I got to see this production once, but at the same time, I'm glad I don't have to see it ever again.

Photos by Fredrik Arff.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Please note: Wasa Teater invited me to see this musical for free because it'll be featured in the Finnish musical podcast Musikaalimatkassa that I co-host.

Wasa Teater's Ingvar! – en musikalisk möbelsaga is an odd musical.

It's a sung-through musical about the furniture chain IKEA and its founder Ingvar Kamprad. Instead of painting a realistic picture of its titular character, though, Ingvar! turns the man into a myth and presents him as the messiah of the religion called capitalism. All this is told via cheerful folksy music – in Swedish, of course.

I loved it.

Ingvar! is composed by Erik Gedeon, with lyrics by Klas Abrahamsson. It premiered in Hamburg in 2009 ("Das Wunder von Schweden, eine musikalische Möbelsaga"). It debuted in Sweden in 2010, and since, it's been popping up in theatres all around the Swedish-speaking corner of the world.

In Finland, Ingvar! has been performed in Helsinki (Svenska Teatern, 2016) before. In September 2017, it premiered in Wasa Teater in Vaasa, directed by Markus Virta.

Me and my friend met up with actors Anna-Maria Hallgarn and Erik-André Hvidsten before the show to record an interview for our musical podcast Musikaalimatkassa (we'll release it in late November, keep an eye on the podcast page – I'll link it here when it's published). Among other things, we talked about how reserved Finnish theatre audiences can be: someone might think a play is the funniest thing they've ever seen, but if everyone else in the audience is quiet, they don't dare to laugh out loud.

Ridiculous, isn't it? Well, sure enough, watching Ingvar! in Wasa Teater, I noticed I was acting exactly like that stereotypical Finn, stifling my laughter because no one around me was laughing. Remembering the conversation, I can't help wondering if all the people around me were doing the same...

I mean to say that Ingvar! is hilarious.

It's so funny. Something about the contrast in between the catchy music, the subject matter – the birth of a multinational furniture mammoth – and the lyrics – ranging from awkward praise of the Swedish countryside to songs about revenue and exploiting foreign workforce – got me. It's a weird combo, but really delightful at that.

Ingvar! presents Ingvar Kamprad's life story like a twisted version of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. From the moment he is born, little Ingvar's family starts teaching him in the ways of capitalism. And sure enough, he grows up to be a first-grade capitalist, one who swears by moderate pay but also moderate living.

As the show progresses, the story of our hero gradually turns into mythos. Ingvar is loved and lauded as a genius, then crucified (quite literally!) for being a Nazi symphatizer and heaven knows what else, but not even death can quite hold him back. By the end of the story, the fictional Ingvar is completely divorced from reality. For starters, the real Kamprad is still alive...

The show also recounts the beginnings of IKEA. I've never really thought about IKEA having an origin story.

I'm young enough to feel like the stores have always excisted here in Finland, it's simply the way everyday furniture shopping is done. It's fun how Ingvar! makes you think about the concept. Picking your items from a warehouse all by yourself and everything in the store from the colours of the building to the menu of the restaurant proudly oozing Swedish vibes seems normal since we're used to it, but indeed, someone's had to come up with those ideas – and at first, they might have seemed weird to others.

The musical is in Swedish, but the theatre offers subtitles in Finnish and English. That's good. After watching Les Misérables in Swedish for around 20 times, I'm getting a good grasp of standard musical vocabulary – you know, love this and revolution that... But here, with lyrics about bank balance and salaries, it's good to have a translation at hand.

The musical has a cast of eight: Johan Aspelin, Anna-Maria Hallgarn, Erik-André Hvidsten, Saara Lehtonen, Thomas Lundin, Richard Mitts, Tove Qvickström and Maria Udd.

Hvidsten portrays the titular character from cradle to grave. The others act like a Greek choir of sorts. They're relatives, employees, pieces of furniture (!), praising Ingvar one minute and bashing him the next. The cast doubles as the orchestra. They're a multitalented group, playing everything from violin and guitar to accordion and reed organ.

The cast sounds fantastic together, both the vocals and the instrumentals. This musical is a joy to listen to. It also looks like they're having fun onstage – so it's easy to have fun in the audience, too.

If anything, I'm sorry I didn't see the first Finnish production of Ingvar! in Helsinki. But better late than never. Watching this musical was way more fun than any shopping trip to IKEA ever could be.

Photos by Frank A. Unger.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jekyll & Hyde in Salon Teatteri

Please note: I saw Salon Teatteri's production on Jekyll & Hyde for free in exchange of writing an article about the musical's history for the production's souvenir programme. If you visit Salo this fall, go to the theatre and buy ten of those.

We're so lucky here in Finland!

During the last four years, we've had not one, not two, but now three fine productions of the musical Jekyll & Hyde, all within a 300 km radius. Sure, I doubt that most people see this as an especially exciting series of events – but for me, a borderline obsessive Jekyll & Hyde fan, it's a huge thrill.

So let's see what Salon Teatteri's autumn 2017 production has to offer.

Hyde, feeling alive

Salon Teatteri is an amateur theatre (did you know that the word amateur is originally French and means lover of? What a perfect word!) with a tiny performance space, so it's quite a feat they've staged a musical as big as this one. But no need to worry: it's an impressive show all the way through.

I was surprised to find out the small space actually works in the favour of the production. You can't help feeling tense when there's a murder taking place a couple of meters in front of you.

Pauliina Salonius's direction emphasises the dark and violent parts of the story. Hyde's mistreatment of Lucy and the murder at the end of the first act felt so close and personal I got a little knot in my stomach. I saw the show with lots of friends and I know some of them found the violence a bit too graphic. I see where they're coming from, the song Alive especially has some pretty gruesome moments. Personally, though, I think the mood is mostly intense in a good way.

The set design (by Riku Suvitie) features lots of mirrors and a laboratory that's situated on a sort of a loft. Throw that together with some stark lighting (by Timo A. Aalto) and lots of smoke and you get a deliciously creepy atmosphere. I also rather like the costumes (by Taija Jokilehto). It's nice how Emma gets to wear a sensible, black dress instead of the dainty feminine things so many productions give her. She looks almost uncomfortable in her fancy engagement party dress, and I think that makes sense – it is after all implied that neither Jekyll or Emma feel at home in the high society.

Another nice thing for me is that there are two Finnish translations of this musical, and in Salo, they're using the one that was also used in the first production of J&H I ever saw (by Tuomas Parkkinen, Jussi Vahvaselkä and Kristina Vahvaselkä). It's feels good, somehow, to hear those same lyrics and words again. I'm not claiming it's the best possible translation of the musical, but it's comfortably familiar.

Emma in the laboratory

In Salo, the musical's titular characters are played by Peter Nyberg. His Jekyll is short-tempered but seems genuinely excited about his experiment. His Hyde, then, is super sadistic, and Jekyll pretty much throws in the towel as soon as Hyde is let loose – he gets addicted to being Hyde fast. It becomes clear early that he's fighting a losing battle, whatever optimism he had in the first act is replaced with desperation. All in all, you can tell Nyberg has a good time playing the roles, and he sings the part just right.

I like how this production makes Jekyll rather young (Nyberg is born in 1993). Jekyll/Hyde is often played by men approaching middle age, and in the original novel, Jekyll is in his 50s. But, as we discussed with a friend afterwards, I think it makes more sense to make him younger in the musical. A middle-aged guy should have enough life experience to know better than to test the formula on himself. But if it's someone young and rash who probably got his doctorate two weeks ago... The whole affair suddely feels a bit more believable.

There are two alternating Lucys and Emmas in this production. I saw Rosita Ahlfors as Lucy and Laura Flemming as Emma. Ahlfors's Lucy feels very earnest and rather naïve. Therefore, she is an easy target for Hyde to channel all his destructive energy against, hurting her just as he wants. Maybe it's no wonder, since Flemming's Emma is level-headed with a calm precence. She seems like a person who will shut you up in a fight, but do it in such a gentle manner that you won't even get the satisfaction of getting a rise out of her. There is no way Jekyll – or Hyde, for that matter – could boss her around.

However, as I've mentioned before, my favourite character in this story is Jekyll's lawyer and best friend Utterson. Teemu Veikkolainen doesn't disappoint. From his first line, I knew I was going to enjoy the performance. He's pointedly calm and proper, in contrast to Jekyll's temper. He seems like someone you would trust in a tight spot, and with your legal documents, but there's also a dash of humour and a pinch of forbidden desires thrown in the mix. I like him!

The whole ensemble works well together. Aki-Matti Kallio's Simon Stride stuck out to me especially, he is a fun highlight. The production cuts some of the character's already meagre material, but Kallio's pompous Stride steals the show nevertheless.

Utterson and Hyde

All in all, I enjoyed this production a lot. It's not perfect (for example, the music – the orchestration is based on pre-recorded tracks that, in my opinion, are often way too slow. I simply prefer orchestrations with a faster tempo). But, as a whole, it's an entertaining, creepy-in-a-good-way show. I'm going back at least once.

Finland! Indeed, what a fantastic place for a Jekyll & Hyde fan to live.

Photos by Mika Nurmi / Studio X.
P.S. Suomenkieliset lukijat: tästä linkistä voitte kuunnella Musikaalimatkassa-podcastimme jakson, jossa Peter Nyberg kertoo roolityöstään. Ja lukekaa myös Teatterikärpäsen puraisuja -blogin arvostelu esityksestä!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Cats and The Last Ship in Finland

Today, short reviews of two new Finnish non-replica musical productions.

Cats, Tampereen Teatteri


Photo by Harri Hinkka.

This autumn, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats is back in Finland. It's been almost ten years since our last full-blown production of the musical, so I guess it's about time.

I was in the wrong mindset when I saw this musical. I had seen the mind-alteringly good opening night of the new Swedish production of Les Misérables a week before, and watching Cats, my mind kept wandering back to Jean Valjean, Fantine and Javert. Had I known Les Mis was coming up when I bought the Cats ticket, I would definitively chosen another date. But what can you do – when I found out, this season's Cats performances were already practically sold out anyway.

But yeah, about the show itself...

I was a bit surprised to see how closely director Georg Malvius's version of the musical resembles the original Trevor Nunn direction. There's only one major change: the show is set in motion when a rat (played by Risto Korhonen) goes to bed and dreams of a world filled with felines. The rat doesn't speak, but he takes part in scenes, observes the Jellicles and tries to get accepted into their tribe.

Other than that, apart from a couple of fun little details – like Bustopher Jones frequenting a different sort of gentlemen's club, complete with pole dancing tomcats – the show looks, sounds and feels pretty traditional. The colours of the costumes (designed by Tuomas Lampinen) are reminiscent of John Napier's original designs, and even the orchestration resembles the original cast recordings from the 80s.

That's not to say the production isn't nice to watch, quite the contrary. My personal favourite scenes were Growltiger's Last Stand and Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat, both performed by Tero Harjunniemi (a former Valjean, another Les Mis reminder). The former is especially fun because Harjunniemi gets to show off his operatic training by singing an Italian aria with Helena Rängman's Lady Griddlebone.

But despite all the good things, in the end, I liked this production – well, well enough.

The cast is talented, well-trained, and they clearly enjoy what they're doing, and the show looks beautiful. Still, the performance didn't make me feel much. Maybe it was simply the previous week's Les Mis overload distracting me, or maybe I've outgrown Cats for good (it was my very first favourite musical after all, I listened to it so much in 2008 I'm kind of permanently fed up with it nowadays). Maybe both.

Recommended, even if I didn't really feel the magic myself this time.



The Last Ship / Viimeinen laiva, Turun kaupunginteatteri

Photo by Otto-Ville Väätäinen.

The Last Ship, or Viimeinen laiva in Finnish, is a musical with music and lyrics by Sting. It premiered in Chicago in 2014. After a three-month-long Broadway run (the musical's producers lost their entire $15 million investment), the show has now arrived to Europe. It had its European premiere in Finland, in Turun kaupunginteatteri this September.

The musical (book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey) tells the story of a man, Gideon Fletcher, who runs away from his hometown in his teens, comes back 15 years later and finds out everything has changed. While he's been sailing the seven seas, Gideon's old girlfriend has found herself a new man and the shipyard that's been the source of the town's livelihood has gone bankrupt. To fight off desperation, the unemployed shipbuilders decide to return to the shipyard, build one last ship and sail away together, while Gideon tries to win back the love of his ex-sweetheart.

I really don't know what to make of this story. It's an uncomfortable mix of realism and fantasy. It's too firmly grounded in the real world to feel like a fairytale. For example, it's explicitly set in Wallsend, Sting's own home town in England. On the other hand, it's also way too fairytale-like to feel real. For example... well, that whole shipbuilding business, really. A bunch of dudes building a ship to sail away towards new adventures, seriously?

I'm certain the titular ship and its maiden voyage are meant to symbolise something, but I don't know what. Freedom, maybe – but how would the shipbuilders running away from their problems solve anything, since it didn't work out for Gideon in the beginning? And what does that say about the characters who are left behind? Maybe the set design (by Jani Uljas) gives us a key to this mystery when, near the end of the show, the ship is represented by a close-to-lifesize cutout of RMS Titanic's propellers.

The love story is dull. Boy abandons girl, girl pines after boy, boy comes back and assumes he still has a claim to girl even though they haven't spoken to each other in 15 years and she's now with someone else. The musical does not pass the Bechdel test. I know that's common in musical theatre (some of my personal favourites don't pass it either), but times are changing. An original musical written in 2014 should know better.

All that said, I feel there's a compelling story hidden in here somewhere. Change, desperation, perseverance, lost love... these could be the elements of an interesting story. But as it is, it's just The Full Monty rehashed, this time with ships and clichéd romance.

Turun kaupunginteatteri's production of The Last Ship is beautifully staged and performed. I paid special attention to the orchestra, conducted by Markus Länne the night I saw the show – they sound fantastic, and the sound system is set up perfectly. You can hear each and every sound from the orchestra pit clearly and beautifully. I wouldn't mind the theatre staging an instrumental musical concert! The music's quite nice, too, though not especially memorable. I'm not a Sting fan, but the tunes are pleasant to listen to.

Too bad that the plot is what it is. No matter how talented the cast and the orchestra, how impressive the sound system and how handsome the visuals, it's simply not a musical for me.

P.S. Both Cats and The Last Ship have surtitles in English.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Hei kaikki, minulla on ilmoitusluontoista asiaa: minusta on tullut podcast-juontaja!

Päätimme keväällä ystäväni Laura Haajasen kanssa, että aika on kypsä Suomen ensimmäiselle musikaalipodcastille. Monta pitkää kesäpäivää meni suunnitellessa ja äänitellessä, nyt on aika pamauttaa tulokset kaikkien kuultaviksi. Ensimmäinen täysimittainen jakso saa ensiesityksensä tänään.

Miksi podcast? Siksi, että bloggaaminen on kovin yksinäistä puuhaa. Joskus blogitekstit toki herättävät keskustelua Twitterissä tai kavereiden kesken reaalimaailmassa, mutta lähtökohtaisesti bloggari naputtelee tunteitaan sanoiksi yksin ja lukijat sitten lukevat tekstin kukin omassa yksinäisyydessään.

Podcastin asetelma on erilainen: jokaisessa jaksossa puhutaan musikaaleista vähintään kaksin, usein isommallakin porukalla vaihtuvien vieraiden ja haastateltavien kanssa. Vaihteeksi dialogia yksinlaulun sijaan! Nautin kirjoittamisesta ja jatkan totta kai tulevaisuudessa teatterista bloggaamista ihan kuin ennenkin, mutta on hauska päästä kokeilemaan myös toisenlaista kertomisen tapaa.

Musikaalimatkassa-podcastin nimi kertoo, mistä on kyse: otamme kuuntelijat mukaan musikaalimatkoillemme niin Suomessa kuin ulkomailla. Juttelemme jostakin illan esitykseen liittyvästä aiheesta, tapaamme ehkä teokseen perehtyneitä faneja tai taiteilijoita musikaalin takana, jaamme näytöksen herättämät ajatukset. Toisinaan istumme alas vieraan kanssa ja otamme käsittelyyn jonkin musikaalimaailman ilmiön.

Julkaisemme uuden jakson suunnilleen joka toinen tiistai. Syksyn aikana aiomme puhua esimerkiksi fanittamisesta ja fanitettavana olemisesta, moraalisesta mielipahasta ja tasa-arvosta. Kerromme lisää suunnitelmistamme podcastin esittelyjaksossa.

Podcastin kautta haluamme jakaa oman rakkautemme musikaaleihin, tarjota Suomen musikaalifaneille ja musiikkiteatterin maailmasta kiinnostuneille jotain uutta ja hauskaa ja samalla tuoda katsojia ja alan ammattilaisia lähemmäs toisiaan. Meillä kokijoilla ja tekijöillä on yhteinen intohimo, ja toivomme, että voimme podcastissa ja sen ympärillä puhua siitä yhdessä.

Julkaisimme juuri ekan jaksomme, jossa lähdemme musikaalimatkalle Ruotsiin Les Misérablesia katsomaan – ja otamme mennessämme selvää siitä, onko satatuntinen kurjuuden viemäreissä kieriskely oikeastaan edes hyvä musikaali. Toivottavasti saamme matkaseuraa monista teatterinystävistä niin tälle kuin tuleville reissuille!

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Les Misérables, Smålands Musik & Teater

It's good, getting your autumn started with some top-quality Les Mis!

A little over a week ago, me and two good friends of mine traveled to Jönköping, Sweden to see the opening night of Smålands Musik & Teater and Kulturhuset Spira's new production of Les Misérables. Apart from the leading actors, this production (directed by James Grieve) is essentially identical to Wermland Opera's 2016 production I saw twice last year. So if you want to read my general opinions, check out my first and second 2016 reviews. In them, I talk about the direction and the visuals, no need to repeat that here.

Instead, a couple of impressions about my favourite performances.

I already wrote about this a while ago: my number one reason to see this show, and the reason I convinced my friends to come with me, was that the leading role of Jean Valjean is played by Alexander Lycke. From 2010 to 2012, he played the same role in Åbo Svenska Teater here in Finland. I loved that production with all my heart, so of course I had to travel to see this one too.

This is just so special to me. The relationship in between me and Les Mis, if you can use that word to describe the bond in between a musical and a person, goes deeper than me just being a fan of the show. After seeing it live 30+ times, it still hits me harder than any other musical. The ÅST production is especially important to me since it marks something of a turning point in my life. So you can imagine how exciting it was seeing Lycke in the role again!

Even so, it's nice that instead of a walk down the memory lane, this is a different take with all sorts of different details. I think Lycke's portrayal of Valjean has grown lots and lots – he was certainly good the last time, no doubt about that, but the character feels even more 3D and well-rounded now. I guess I have grown and changed during the past six years, too, maybe I now look at the character in a different way myself too. So, it's a little bit more grown-up edition of the character for a little bit more grown-up me.

I already knew that this direction treats Valjean well, giving him space and depth. This time, I especially loved... no, scratch that, I was especially heartbroken to watch the character growing older during the course of the show. No overblown makeup, just some different wigs and very good acting.

Compared to Christer Nerfont, who I saw and loved in Wermland Opera's production, I really can't say whose acting I prefer. I think Lycke's Valjean is a bit more undemonstrative and guarded. Seems like this dude hardly admits his own feelings to himself, let alone others, until they become too much to bear and burst out in a series of wonderfully beautiful songs.

And about those, I've said it before and I'll say it again: no one sings the part better than Alex. I've nothing to add to that, that's just how it is.

If Jean Valjean was good, Javert wasn't half bad either.  

Philip Jalmelid is the only Wermland Opera lead to reprise his role in Smålands Musik & Teater's production. Back in Wermland Opera, I didn't really agree with all the details of his performance. While my personal interpretation of the character is still quite different from Jalmelid's, I appreciate how his Javert has calmed down since last year, become a little more restrained. The character feels a bit older and a bit more realistic now.

Though really, if you sing Stars as perfectly as Jalmelid does, I won't care if the rest of your performance is delivered via sock puppetry. Finding the right words to describe this rendition of Stars – my favourite Les Mis song! – is hard. Jalmelid's take was powerful in Karlstad already, but now, experienced from the front row...

It was like his voice filled every single square inch in the theatre, squeezing air out of my lungs and all wandering thoughts out of my mind. After the song, I was honestly a bit startled to hear my own voice: for a second there, I forgot all manners and just made the highest and loudest sound I possibly could. I needed to get all that excitement and emotion out of my system somehow.

If Stars was the highlight of the first act, Bring Him Home was easily the best part of the second half. I of course knew what was coming, I have heard that one from the front row a couple of times before, but still, it never fails to amaze me. How does Alex turn the most boring tune in the whole show into its most beautiful song? No idea, but here we are again.

Another performance I really liked was Anna-Hanna Rosengren as Fantine.

I haven't seen a Fantine quite like this before: young, shy and withdrawn, but with a lot of fire under the surface, ready to flash out. And her voice! I Dreamed a Dream is easily the most overdone song of the musical, being covered left and right, but I got chills listening to Rosengren. (By the way! You can listen to her, and the others, in this Facebook video from the musical's press conference. The picture is sideways at first, but don't let that bother you, they sound great nevertheless.)

I really love how this production has Fantine and Cosette sharing a couple of little moments. They don't meet physically, but there's for example this moment during Castle on a Cloud where little Cosette and Fantine, now a spirit in the afterlife, sing the She says, Cosette, I love you very much line together. Maybe I'm becoming a big softy, but now, it made me even more emotional than last year.

Other than these three... Well, that'll have to wait until me and my friends go back to Sweden in December. I think I need another round of this before stating any opinions about the other characters. I only have two eyes and one brain, so I sadly cannot both stare at my favourites with unwavering attention and focus on everybody else all at once! Next time, I shall try to pay a little more attention to Enjolras & co.

But all in all, you know what? I love musicals, I love Les Mis, and sometimes life is very very good.

Photos by Lars Kroon.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ajatuksia plyysipenkistä

Olen taas lukenut teatteriuutisia.

Ei ehkä kannattaisi. Keittää nimittäin yli joka ainoa kerta.

Tällä kertaa hermostuin retroaktiivisesti Aamulehden heinäkuisesta teatterivuosikatsauksesta ja Helsingin Sanomien tämänaamuisesta Täsmäteatterin esittelyjutusta, joka sivuaa nuorison teatteritraumoja. Aamulehden juttu povaa yhtä aikaa laitosteatterin kuolemaa ja listaa maan katsotuimmiksi näytelmiksi isojen talojen suuria tuotantoja. Helsingin Sanomissa pohditaan nuorten teatteriennakkoluuloja ja uusien esityspaikkojen mukanaan tuomia etuja. Molemmat jutut ovat huolissaan teatterien katsojalukujen pienetymisestä ja katsomoiden nuorisokadosta.

Jutut herättävät minussa ristiriitaisia tunteita. Ensin olin jyrkästi sitä mieltä, että teatterien katsojakato ei voi olla kiinni Hesarin jutun mollaamista plyysipenkeistä tai pelastus kummuta Teatterin tiedotuskeskuksen johtajan Hanna Helavuoren Aamulehdessä peräänkuuluttamista uudenlaisista tavoista esittää. Sitten olin aivan varma, että kyse on juuri niistä.


Helsingin Sanomissa nostetaan esille Täsmäteatterin näyttelijöiden esittämä väite, että laitosteattereiden saleihin liitetään paljon olettamuksia ja ennakkoluuloja. Tämän uskon. Muutama vaikea teatterikokemus teini-iässä ja ennakkoluuloinen suhtautuminen taidemuotoon on sinetöity loppuiäksi.

En ihmettele ennakkoluuloisuutta ollenkaan. Koen nimittäin itsekin, että suomalaisen laitosteatterin lämpiö ei ole minun paikkani.

Olen nähnyt kaupunginteattereissa kirjaimellisesti satoja esityksiä – ulkopuolisuuden tunne avecinani. Kunhan sinne asti ehditään, teatterisalin pimeässä on turvallista ja mukavaa, mutta kokonaisvaltaisena elämyksenä perinteinen laitosteatteri-ilta on minulle nihkeä kokemus. En koe teatteria kutsuvaksi paikaksi parikymppiselle, vaatimattomasti tienaavalle, tennareihin ja farkkuihin taipuvaiselle ihmiselle. Olen ottanut sen asenteen, että voin mennä ja menen teatteriin sellaisena kuin olen, hauskaa pidetään vaikka hampaat irvessä, mutta ei se kovin luontevalta tunnu. Missä siellä voi edes seisoskella olematta tiellä? Leffaan voin mennä rentoutumaan. Teatteriin en, en, vaikka lavalla kerrottavat tarinat ovat mielestäni tuplasti niin kiehtovia ja vaikuttavia kuin valkokankaan tapahtumat.

(Ainoa poikkeus tästä on Åbo Svenska Teater, jonne voisin vaikka muuttaa asumaan. Siellä olen aina ollut kaksinkertainen ulkopuolinen ikäni ja äidinkieleni puolesta, mutta matikan sääntöjen vastaisesti kahden negatiivisen ynnääminen tuottaa tässä positiivisen tuloksen. Kolmetoista kertaa maailman parasta Les Misérablesia saattaa vaikuttaa myös.)

Ymmärrän, että monelle katsojalle hienosti pukeutuminen ja kymmenen euron kakunpalat kuuluvat teatteri-iltaan. Minusta ne tuntuvat vaikeilta ja vastenmielisiltä. Arvostan suomalaisten hyvää käytöstä teattereissa – osaamme olla hiljaa ja pitää kännykät taskussa vaikkapa saksalaisia tai lontoolaisia kanssayleisöjämme paremmin – mutta ehkä ripaus Lontoon-tyylistä rentoutta ei olisi pahitteeksi. Miksei meilläkin voisi tarjoilla jäätelöä katsomoon väliajalla?

Mutta! Molemmat mainitsemani lehtijutut ehdottivat ratkaisuksi uusia esityspaikkoja, Aamulehden haastattelema Tinfon johtaja vaikkapa vaellusteatteria tunturissa ja Helsingin Sanomien jututtama Täsmäteatterin väki esitystään Tampereen vanhassa uittotunnelissa. Kuulostaa kiinnostavalta, periaatteessa... Mutta mutuntumalta veikkaan, että meidän ujojen suomalaisten joukossa on myös iso joukko ihmisiä, joita ajatus teatterista teatterisalin ulkopuolella pelottaa ja ahdistaa vielä perinteistä teatteri-iltaa enemmän. Kuulun heihin itsekin. Laitoslämpiössä tunnen oloni kiusaantuneeksi, mutta pelkkä ajatus aktiivisesta osallistumisesta saa vereni hyytymään.

Mielestäni on hyvä, että tarjolla on yhä enemmän erilaisia, kokeileviakin mahdollisuuksia kokea esittävää taidetta. Silti toivon, että vaihtoehtoihin kuuluu jatkossakin teatteri-ilta plyysipenkin rauhallisessa syleilyssä, nykyisestä pönötyksestä rentoutettuna mutta silti teatterisalin perinteisen turvallisessa pimeässä. (Tai no, miksei sitten vaikka uittotunnelin turvassa – sanottakoon, että Täsmäteatterin ajatus teatterin tuttujen elementtien säilyttämisestä uudessa ympäristössä miellyttää kaltaistani uusien tilanteiden jännittäjää.)

Toisin sanoen suo siellä, vetelä täällä. Todellinen ongelma on ohjelmisto.

Tämä ei ole uusi keskustelu. Itse olen kirjoittanut samasta aiheesta aikaisemmin muun muassa täällä, täällä ja täällä. Väitän yhä, että ulkoiset puitteet eivät riitä karkottamaan katsojaa teatterista, jos hän kokee ohjelmiston riittävän kiinnostavaksi. Minä löysin oman lajityyppini, ja sillä tiellä ollaan. Uskon, että sama voi käydä muillekin. Jos teos kiinnostaa tarpeeksi, ei loppujen lopuksi ole väliä, esitetäänkö sitä metsälaavulla vai 1800-luvulla rakennetussa teatterisalissa. Valtion tukemilla laitosteattereilla on vieläpä puolellaan se etu, että niiden resurssit riittävät sekä tuotannossa että markkinoinnissa paljon muita tekijöitä pidemmälle.

Mutta onko keskimääräisessä suomalaisessa laitosteatterissa tarjolla sellaista ohjelmistoa, joka sekä kiinnostaa että on hintansa puolesta saavutettavissa keskivertoteinille tai parikymppiselle?

Odotan todellisella mielenkiinnolla Taidetestaajat-hankkeessa syntyviä kasiluokkalaisten kulttuurikritiikkejä. Toivottavasti palautetta kuunnellaan teattereissa.

Tämän, tämän ja tämän jälkeen olen oikeastaan jo aika väsynyt kirjoittamaan tästä asiasta. Tehkää jooko joku joko Vampyyrien tanssi oikeasti opiskelijaystävällisillä hinnoilla, joku nuorista hahmoista kertova (off-)Broadway-pläjäys tyyliin Dear Evan Hansen tai Heathers tai, hyvänen aika, vaikka Frank Wildhornin Dracula ja katsotaan, mitä siitä seuraa. Onko ottajia?

P.S. Mielestäni "laitos" on suomen kielen hirvein sana.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Summer of Notre Dame

Last week, Fredericia Teater's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame closed for good.

Funny how, even though my personal last time seeing the production was over a month ago, I still felt a jolt of sadness on Saturday. Now it's really over. No more behind-the-scenes Instagram photos from the cast, no more fans sharing their feelings about yesterday's performance on Facebook. No more knowing that even though I can't be there in Copenhagen to see the night's show, someone else is, and they're having the time of their life.

This won't be a long post, since I've already written a review, another review and an interview. But here are some finishing thoughts. I think this adventure, seeing a long-time favourite musical live for the first time and all that followed, deserves that.

I'll keep repeating this until I'm too old to remember that night anymore – I've never experienced anything like the October 2016 premiere of this production was. Here's how actor Lars Mølsted (Quasimodo) described it to me when I met him in July:

"Just after the show, I met with the director Thomas Agerholm backstage. We were literally just standing there and shaking our heads to each other for ten seconds, thinking, 'I don’t know what just happened'."

I think it wasn't just the cast and the director who felt that way – I believe every single person in the theatre that night shared the feeling. I remember how, walking back to our hotel, me and my friend were also shaking our heads. What just happened, indeed.

I've tried, but I still cannot find the exact right words to convey what I felt there. Those two and a half hours, nothing outside that theatre mattered.

I saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame four times this July, twice in Berlin and twice in Copenhagen. In retrospect, the Berlin production was a bit of a disappointment – the more I think about it, the more I feel the design and the direction of the production didn't bring out the best in the script (read my full review). Though of course, had I not seen Fredericia Teater's production at all, I would probably be writing a different review about the Berlin version now...

I'm happy I got to take two friends with me to see the Copenhagen performances this summer. I know extreme enthusiasm, like mine, is usually off-putting rather than enticing. But I'm glad they agreed to come with me, and I'm glad they enjoyed themselves, too. It's good to have people with whom you can share something like this, to know that you're not the only one you know who remembers the experience.

It has been a long time since a musical has really, really touched me, not only my mind but also my soul. I've seen hundreds of theatrical performances, but honestly, I can only think of two other occasions when a production has hit me this hard. I know this is going to be one of those where, years from now, I can watch a fantastic production of the very same musical and think, yes, this is very nice – but still, it is not like that production was. I'll keep trying to find something that'd make me feel like this production did.

This is why I'm a theatre fan, to have experiences like this. Even if – or maybe just because – theatre is so fleeting and once the experience is over, you'll never have it back.

Here are two videos from the curtain call of the last performance. I couldn't be there, but I know how everybody in the audience felt like. I know that excitement, that rush of adrenaline. I'm glad I got to be there earlier this summer, and I'm glad everyone cheering on those videos got to be there, too.

I'm glad we got to share this.

P.S. I'd be lying if I didn't mention that having my piece about Fredericia Teater's Hunchback published in Finland's biggest subscription newspaper – a first for me – wasn't the highlight of my summer. How about that!!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hamlet Live!

Spending a weekend in Copenhagen in July, I didn't only watch a Disney musical – I also got to see some surprise Shakespeare.

Denmark is my family's vacation destination of choice, so I've been to the country closer to 30 times. This time, though, I was traveling with a friend who is not as familiar with the country. So, as one of the essential things to see during a short stay in the Copenhagen area, we decided to take a little trip outside the capital and check out Helsingør's Kronborg Castle – the castle that's famously depicted as Elsinore in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Some Danish family drama. Photo by me!

I last visited Kronborg two years ago, and they highlighted the Hamlet connection then, too: I went on a guided tour led by Hamlet's friend Horatio. He took us around the castle, retelling the tragic story of his friend as we went. Shakespeare actually never visited Kronborg, the fictional depiction was perhaps entirely made up or possibly inspired by tales told by traveling actors. Nevertheless, it was fun walking around the castle and seeing where each scene might have taken place.

This summer, we were treated to something even better. We got to be a part of Hamlet Live. Every day all summer long, you can catch one of two alternating casts acting out various scenes from Hamlet all around Kronborg Castle.

The story, with concept and direction by Peter Holst-Beck and Barry McKenna, is stripped down to essentials. We don't get to meet all the characters from the play, but Hamlet (Benjamin Stender / Jacob C. Utzon-Krefeld), King Claudius (Oliver Lavery / Rasmus Emil Mortensen), Queen Gertrude (Birgitte Boesen / Linda Elvira), Ophelia (Alexandra Jespersen / Antonia Pipaluk Stahnke), Polonius (Andrew Jeffers / Barry McKenna / Ian Burns) and Laertes (Jefferson Bond / Kenneth Wright) are all there – and so is the ghost of Hamlet's father, or so I hear.

King Claudius, alone. Photo by Laura Haajanen.

Entering the castle, we received a little leaflet with hints about where each character likes to hang out. For example, Queen Getrude is often in the queen's chamber, and the ghost might show up in the dark casemates. If you're not satisfied with such vague instructions, there's also a blackboard with a list of upcoming scenes near the castle entrance, complete with exact spots and performance times. The show goes on for the whole day, from 10 am to 17 pm, though I believe they play each scene twice during the day.

The play is performed in contemporary English, so it's easier for tourists from all around the world to understand than Shakespeare's language would be. Its tone is rather lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek. I think the show features just the right amount of humor. You have serious scenes with thoughts of guilt and murder, but it's all presented in a light enough manner that it's easy to jump in whenever you stumble across a scene.

The audience has a part to play, too. We are members of the court, or maybe visitors to the castle from foreign courts, and we get to greet the new king of Denmark and take part in Hamlet's ploy by booing during the right parts of his play-within-a-play. Sometimes, the characters even have a little chat with some of us.

Me and my friends didn't have enough time to watch all of the scenes, but we still caught quite a lot of them: the newly crowned king greeting the public with his queen, Hamlet's play-within-a-play, Claudius's monologue about his guilt, Hamlet feigning insanity in front of Polonius, Hamlet and Ophelia fighting...

Out of the bits we saw, my favourite scene was the play-within-a-play Hamlet uses to make sure his uncle Claudius feels tormented by guilt. This version reimagines it as a hand puppet show performed by Hamlet himself. It's very silly, very tongue-in-cheek – and the best thing is, it still works! Watching Hamlet's completely ridiculous one-man performance, Claudius starts feeling riddled with guilt, and retires to the grand ballroom to think on his sins.

Preparing for the puppet show. Photo by Laura Haajanen.

The play is meant for people of all ages, and indeed, us grown-ups weren't the only ones interested. It was the cutest thing when, after Hamlet and Ophelia had had a fight with rings and old love letters flying around and Hamlet storming away, a couple of children picked up the ring and the torn letters and gave them back to Ophelia. Ah, my heart! The kids seemed pretty enamored with Ophelia in general. And it's no wonder. She wears a beautiful gown and she lives in a castle – she's practically a fairytale princess.

Actually, the audience interaction was fun and well-done all the way through, and this is coming from someone who absolutely despises audience interaction if it's done in a traditional theatre setting.

Here, with lights on and the audience and the characters mingling in the same rooms, it felt very natural when the characters stopped to chat with audience members. My friend heard an especially funny exchange when Polonius introduced his daughter Ophelia to one of us tourists.

OPHELIA: And where are you from?
TOURIST: The colonies.

Ten audience interaction points to you, clever fellow tourist! I wish I was as quick-witted as that person, but I'm afraid that's not my forte. When Polonius, a proper gentleman, bowed to me when we were leaving, I just ended up giving him a dumbfounded look. Sorry about that! Next time, I shall practice my curtsy in advance.

The lovely Ophelia. Photo by Laura Haajanen.

This was a wonderful experience. The entrance tickets to the castle are rather expensive, but with something like this included in the price, you really feel you're getting your money's worth. Had we had more time, it would have been fun arriving early and trying to see all the scenes.

Hamlet Live runs until August 31st. If you're anywhere near Copenhagen this month, I warmly recommend it.

Read more about Hamlet Live on Kronborg Castle's website.

P.S. My favourite character was King Claudius. He was so deliciously, hilariously villainous. The best I can describe him is Scar from The Lion King come to life – fittingly enough, remembering that the Shakespeare character was the inspiration for the Disney villain!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Small Town Theatre, Big Time Musicals – Fredericia Teater and the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

If you've been reading my blog lately, you've certainly noticed how I feel about Fredericia Teater's Danish production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. From an audience member's point of view, it's an experience like nothing I've ever seen before – but, I started wondering, how do the people who create the magic feel about it? What is the deal with this Fredericia Teater, really?

I decided to find out. During my last trip to Copenhagen, I got to take a sneak peek behind the scenes and meet some really interesting people. Here's what they told me.

This article was originally published in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (2.8.2017). Finnish friends: you can read this text in Finnish right here!

Lars Mølsted as Quasimodo

We're behind the scenes in The Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, and it’s nearing 7.30 pm. Soon, it’s showtime for The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical. Actor Lars Mølsted, who portrays the titular role, knows what to expect.

”We have eight shows a week, and 1 350 people give a standing ovation after every single show. There’s almost a thousand people standing in the balconies alone, so you just feel it pouring onto you. That’s an out-of-body experience.”

To put it mildly, Danish theatregoers have received the small town theatre’s production with extraordinary enthusiasm.

During the last six year, Fredericia Teater – based in the town of Fredericia (population 40 000) in Jutland peninsula, a three-and-a-half hour drive away from Copenhagen – has both won the hearts of Danish theatre fans and gathered international attention. It’s all thanks to the theatre’s successful musical productions.

The theatre, since 2011 managed by creative producer Søren Møller, has chosen a very unique path. It only puts on musicals that have never been seen in Denmark before, both brand-new shows and internationally successful pieces. It’s a one-of-a-kind approach never before seen in any Nordic theatre.

Actor Lars Mølsted has been working in Fredericia Teater on an open-ended contract since 2011. He points out that the theatre has had to, and sometimes still has to, fight against preconceptions about both its location and its repertoire.

”Jutland is still seen as a farming country. Even the local dialect has a hillbilly stigma. Musical theatre in Denmark has also had a bad reputation. The Academy of Musical Theatre was founded in Fredericia in 2000, before that there was no musical theatre education.”

The paying audience, however, doesn’t have too many hang-ups about all that. Despite getting a smaller subsidy from the government than theatres in Denmark’s leading cities Odense, Aarhus and Aalborg, when measured by tickets sold, Fredericia Teater has become Denmark’s biggest theatre outside Copenhagen.

Even compared to Fredericia Teater’s recent success, though, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is something special.

The musical, composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo and songs from Disney’s 1996 animated movie. It’s way less family-friendly than the movie and instead brings the story closer to Hugo’s original tragic tale.

The musical first premiered in Germany in 1999 and then in the US in 2014, revamped with some new music and a new script by Peter Parnell. The updated version had its European premiere in Fredericia Teater in October 2016.

The feedback has been exhilarating.

25 different media outlets have given the musical 6-star ratings – the Danish equivalent of five stars. Counting the stars, it’s the highest-rated theatrical performance in Danish theatre history. There have been over 120 000 tickets sold. In June, the musical received three Reumert awards, the Danish counterpart of Broadway’s Tony Awards.

Also in June, the production moved and reopened in The Royal Danish Theatre’s premises in Copenhagen. Most of Danish theatres close their doors during the summer and theatre fans enjoy light summer revues, oftentimes performed outdoors, instead. Fredericia Teater has proven that there’s also room for a summer musical.

Over a half of the tickets sold have been to the Copenhagen performances. After the Fredericia run sold out, many people bought tickets to the Copenhagen shows and have now travelled to the capital just so they can see the musical.

Frollo (Mads M. Nielsen) and Quasimodo

Mølsted, who plays the eponymous hunchback Quasimodo, has performed in over 20 musical productions in Fredericia Teater. Even so, The Hunchback is a unique experience for him.

”Something really scary and touching and awesome happened in the rehearsals. The first five or six times we tried, we couldn’t get through the last scene because the ensemble was sobbing. We couldn’t finish the run-through, we couldn’t sing it. At that point, I knew this is something more than entertainment.”

Mølsted says the opening night felt like a rock concert. The audience of 850 people let their feelings show.

”We finished the prologue, and the audience wouldn’t let us continue. We couldn’t go on because of the applause. Just after the show, I met with the director Thomas Agerholm backstage. We were literally just standing there and shaking our heads to each other for ten seconds, thinking, ’I don’t know what just happened’.”

The actors get plenty of fan mail on Facebook, but Mølsted says the most incredible and humbling thing is the audience’s reaction each night. The most unbelievable moment is when he takes his bow at the very end.

”The overwhelming thing for me is, I’m the last one out. Everyone’s always telling me, you can’t believe it can get louder, but then I get onstage – and the people find some way to be louder. We’ve measured the decibels. The applause when I come out is higher than if you’re standing right next to the speakers during the show. Isn’t that crazy?”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s finishes its run in late August. Behind the scenes, Fredericia Teater is preparing for the upcoming season.

In the autumn, the theatre will put on an original musical about Danish musicians Tommy and Rasmus Seebach. The spring of 2018, however, poses an even bigger challenge.

In April, Fredericia Teater will stage the world premiere of The Prince of Egypt, a musical based on Dreamwork’s 1998 animated movie. Dreamworks Theatricals chose Fredericia Teater to produce the musical shortly after The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s opening.

”Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz had seen the level of the production, and therefore trusted us,” Fredericia Teater’s associate producer Rob Hartmann explains.

The Prince of Egypt will be produced in collaboration with the California-based theatre TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The European premiere helps the musical’s creative team to ensure the show’s international appeal.

”Everything right now leads up to the premiere of The Prince of Egypt. The pressure is huge, and April seems very soon,” Hartmann confesses.

Before then, though, the bells of Notre Dame will still ring. Actor Lars Mølsted makes it clear that no matter what, you have to keep your feet on the ground. Each round of thunderous applause is followed by a new performance with a new audience.

”As an actor, you’re only as good as the last show you did.”

Photos by Søren Malmose.
My reviews of this production: October 2016, July 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Klokkeren fra Notre Dame, again

Last weekend, it was finally time to relive the best theatrical performance I have ever seen.

If you haven't read my first review, I recommend you check that out before delving into this – and now, without further ado, let's tackle Fredericia Teater's Danish production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I saw the production twice: on Friday and again on Sunday. I was in Copenhagen for the whole weekend, so in theory, I could have seen the show five times. I however reasoned that if the premiere hit me so hard I could only sleep for about two hours the night after, seeing the show without taking a full day's break in between would probably destroy me.

Friday night's performance was like I expected it would be, coming back to the show after the pure magic of the opening night. It's impossible to repeat a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as simple as that. My mood, and the whole audience's mood, felt calmer and quieter than how I remember the October premiere. I didn't want to strangle anyone during the intermission out of sheer excitement (maybe a good thing), but on the other hand, I got to really pay attention to details this time since I didn't feel like foaming at the mouth uncontrollably the whole time.

It was good, obviously way better than the vast majority of theatrical performances I've seen. Still, had I only seen the show again this once, I would be feeling way more melancholic and nostalgic for the opening night right now. It didn't feel as incredible as it did the first time, and though I knew to expect that, it was still a slightly melancholy feeling.

But then something happened when I came back on Sunday night. The energy and mood in the theatre was different, way more electrifying, though it's impossible to point out why.

Maybe it felt more exciting to me personally because I sat right next to the catwalk part of the stage, in the middle of all the action (Frollo's cape touched me not once but twice! I feel blessed... by the dark and creepy flames of hellfire, I guess). Or maybe something else was different? I really cannot tell. All I know is that there was magic in the air again.

Or maybe it's something to do with one's priorities... While Friday night was all about watching the show as a whole and analysing everything, I guess I can admit Sunday night was decidedly all about watching Frollo. Every second he's onstage and pretty much without blinking.

Look at him!

Archdeacon Claude Frollo, Quasimodo's adoptive father and the antagonist of the story, is one of my biggest favourite characters of all times.

He's a scary villain that does many sorts of disturbed things beyond all redemption – and still, still, I cannot help pitying him. All at once, he's far-fetched (he's so distraught about feeling unwanted sexual attraction that he figures he should literally burn the woman in question alive, with all manner of unnecessary dramatics included) and not all that unrealistic at all (an older white man in a position of power with racist and misogynist opinions). He has so many layers, with his relationships to his brother and Quasimodo and obviously Esmeralda, that he's endlessly interesting to think about.

Lucky me that Mads M. Nielsen's portrayal has absolutely everything I want to see in the character.

There's some good old-fashioned fun villain-ing around with a crazy glint in his eyes, just the right amount of chewing the scenery and even a couple of jokes (his ridiculous cape swish before talking to Esmeralda on the cathedral's roof got me both times). At the same time, he's very terrifying, and when it's needed, also very human. So even when he's at his worst, I cannot help feeling sorry for him – how much better it would be for all of them, Frollo included, if he only was capable of viewing both himself and everybody else in less black-and-white terms.

And then there's the voice.

And then there's the Hellfire scene.

Fredericia Teater's take on Frollo's big solo, Hellfire (during which Frollo comes to the conclusion that Esmeralda must either choose him or die) is quite simply the best thing I've ever seen in theatre. Ever. The music, the choir, the choreography, the digital scenography with the whole cathedral in flames... And, obviously, Nielsen's voice and stage presence. Unreal, I tell you.

I could feel this scene (and the second act finale, too) physically, notably raising my heart rate both times. Actually, to be absolutely and completely honest, I spent half of Sunday thinking soon I'll see Hellfire again with and The Hunchback of Notre Dame too as an afterthought.

All gushing aside, this is not to say that I don't love the whole cast. Seeing my favourite character played to such perfection was a special treat for me, but I'm quite certain you'd walk out just as ecstatic no matter who your favourite character is. It's an overused word, sure, but I mean exactly what I say when I say the casting of this musical is perfect.

I had great difficulty saying anything more than perfect perfect perfect after the opening night, and I'm afraid the problem persists – they're just so good, all of them, it somehow feels quite pointless trying to explain that further. Everything is as it should be. But here are some bullet points.

  • One fascinating thing to watch is the relationship in between Frollo and Lars Mølsted's Quasimodo. In the beginning, there's definitely warmth in between them, moreso than they had in the Berlin production. Makes the ending about six times more powerful. Good heavens.
  • Mølsted won a Singer of the Year award for this role, and hot damn, you don't need to wonder why. I think my favourite Quasimodo song was the gentle, hopeful Heaven's Light – the dreaminess and sweet optimism creates the perfect contrast for Hellfire that comes right after.
  • For the summer run, Bjørg Gamst has taken over the role of Esmeralda. She's fantastic. Taking one look at her introductory dance, it's not hard to understand why all the guys are fascinated by her.
  • This portrayal of Esmeralda's character is sweet and strong and above all so full of life. Kinda makes you wish that for one night only, they'd do the Disney movie ending for a change...
  • Christian Lund's Phoebus is, as a friend put it, a good egg. I love his introductory song and the war flashback sequence especially. (He by the way looks a bit like a viking with the long blond hair, which is a bonus.)
  • I had the luck of seeing two charismatic Clopins: principal Diluckshan Jeyaratnam and understudy Mads Æbeløe Nielsen. I mentioned it in my Berlin review already that I'm not really a fan of the musical version of the character, but these two make the most out of the part. Nielsen sported some pretty neat eye makeup in the role.
  • The ensemble! In a show like this, with such a strong focus on choral music and the ensemble playing many different parts from Parisians to the statues of Notre Dame, you cannot overestimate the ensemble's importance – and they're... perfect perfect perfect, really.

I am so lucky to have encountered this production in the first place, and to have been able to see it not once but thrice.

There certainly are some problems in the musical's script (some things that bother me: the portrayal of the Romani characters is on the stereotypical side, the character of Clopin feels off since the musical takes away his function as the movie's sole narrator but doesn't really give him anything else important to do in exchange, the songs In a Place of Miracles and Someday are basically interchangeable). But when the production's this good... The problems are there, and really, I have a much clearer vision of the musical as a whole now than I did right after the premiere. Yet, at the same time, the good parts are so overwhelming that nothing else matters.

All of my three experiences were very different from each other. A part of me wishes I could keep watching the musical again and again until I can remember every single little detail by heart, but that's hardly realistic. So, I'm glad Sunday night's powerful performance will be my last memory of this production.

To be completely honest again, right now, I feel like I don't want to see any theatre ever again anymore. Other shows might be good, of course, but they're not this – and at the moment, no other thing feels nearly as interesting or exciting.

I know this feeling will fade away the next time I actually see some theatre. At the same time, I know this production will always stay in the back of my mind, as an example of how good theatre can be when it's at its very best.

My 11 flames of hellfire out of 10 rating stands.

Photos by Søren Malmose.

P.S. Three Frollo details I liked the most: 1) how he takes the cross off his neck before visiting Esmeralda in the jail 2) how you can kinda keep track of his mental state by checking out if his hair is neat or all messy 3) him breaking down next to Esmeralda's body.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Der Glöckner von Notre Dame

I'm on tour this summer! On tour with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that is. Last weekend, I saw Stage Entertainment's Berlin production of the Disney musical twice, and next weekend, it's finally time to see the Danish production I love so much again.

Before that, though, here's a review of the Berlin production.

The show

The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical is based on Victor Hugo's classic novel and the 1996 Disney movie, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and book by Peter Parnell.

Most of you probably know the story, but here's a quick recap: the year is 1482 and the city is Paris. The Cathedral of Notre Dame's hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, his adoptive father archdeacon Claude Frollo, and handsome soldier Phoebus all fall in love with beautiful Romani girl Esmeralda. The priest Frollo cannot deal with his forbidden feelings and thus sets forth a chain of actions that will change all of their lives (for the worse, and how! It's a complete mess).

An earlier incarnation of the musical, with book by James Lapine, ran in Berlin from 1999 to 2002. After over a decade, the musical was revamped and the new version premiered in California in 2014. The new Berlin production premiered in April 2017 and it's a replica of the American original, directed by Scott Schwartz.

All in all, it's no stereotypical Disney story with animal sidekicks and happy endings. It's dark and heavy and very much in the spirit of Victor Hugo's original novel, and the show feels decidedly old-fashioned. The ensemble narrates the story throughout, and the production relies on rather simple (yet impressive!) sets and costumes. A choir of 24 is prominently featured onstage for the whole show. As they should be: the music, with its many Latin choruses, is some of the most impressive ever written for a musical.

Some of the themes the musical deals with are prejudices and discrimination. That's something that sadly has to be highlighted in today's world, and certainly something that all of us have to pay attention to - I sure know I have work to do with my own prejudices, we all do. With that in mind, I think it should be noted that the musical's book and lyrics refer to the Romani characters with outdated terms that many nowadays consider pejorative. It's in line with Hugo's original writing, sure... but being an 19th century writer, he's hardly any shining example of modern racial sensibility. I've heard there's a foreign dub of the movie (can't remember which language!) that has Frollo using pejorative words and the "good guys" using the neutral terms. I wonder why they didn't do something like that in the musical. The show's heart is in the right place, but the details leave a little to hope for - just something to keep in mind while watching and especially discussing this musical.

No matter what, though, I love this musical. In my ears, the music is perfect. The story is hardly subtle or especially realistic, and that's just why I enjoy it so. It's big in all the best ways and, at best, takes the audience on a journey of larger-than-life emotions and events. Yet it is not too removed from real life, and if you're not careful, it may even make you think... The characters are easy to love (or hate!), but they can be portrayed with a lot of depth, and their relationships and inner motivations are endlessly fascinating to me. Good storytelling, that's what it is.

The premiere of the Danish production of The Hunchback is the best theatrical performance I have ever had the honour of seeing. I cannot forget how that felt, and it obviously affects the way I feel about this production (and any potential future productions of The Hunchback, really). But now, I'll try to forget that for a while and instead, focus on...

The performances

I had the luck of seeing two different Quadimodos: understudy Jonas Hein and principal David Jakobs.

I liked both a lot, but if I have to choose, understudy Hein takes the cake. His portrayal feels a bit younger, a bit more naive and a little sweeter and happier compared to Jakobs's, who in turn seems to have a little darker undercurrent running through his performance. Both sing beautifully and make you feel for the character. Both also absolutely nail the hunchbacked character's unique way of moving. So my opinion's just a matter of personal preference.

Sarah Bowden's Esmeralda is both sweet and tough, with a voice that's enjoyable to listen to. Yet, somehow, she doesn't leave that deep of an impression. She's maybe a bit too much on the sweet and kind side for my tastes, it's just a tiny bit too sugary for me.

Nevertheless, Bowden's Esmeralda is very likeable. A nice performance, but as a whole, not all that memorable.

Felix Martin as Frollo is amusing, largely for the wrong reasons.

To be honest, instead of a conflicted Catholic priest, he seems to be channeling a campy version of Count Dracula, chewing the scenery left and right. A total Disney villain! It's just that the musical's script allows Frollo to be portrayed as something a little deeper than a cartoon bad guy. Martin's portrayal of the character is pretty much straight-up evil, and while that's entertaining to watch, I still long for more shades of gray. Surprisingly enough, though, his obsessive attraction to Esmeralda is not overstated... or especially noticeable, even. Remembering how the rest of the portrayal was like, it feels odd there was no movie-style sniffing of her hair whatsoever!

Luckily, Martin sings the part just right (the musical's whole score culminates in Frollo's solo Hellfire, so it would be a shame if he didn’t). And don't get me wrong - he's fun to watch. It's just that an approach like this gets old fast. Twice is quite enough for me.

Jens Janke's Clopin, the leader of the Romani camp and a showman at the Festival of Fools, doesn't really do much for me. In the beginning, he reminds me of Jekyll & Hyde's Spider - a stereotypical, angry pimp, that is (though, to be fair, I suppose the script and the direction are largely to blame about that). I wish his and Esmeralda's relationship had a bit more warmth to it, since they're after all working together and supposedly on the same side of things.

As a whole, Clopin's "master of ceremonies" persona doesn't feel all that charismatic or enchanting to me, it felt like Janke was aiming for over-the-top but didn’t quite reach it. I did start feeling sympathy for Clopin's "civilian" persona towards the end of my second performance's second act, though. And Janke does have an impressive falsetto!

Maximilian Mann's Phoebus, then, is a real sweetheart. Watching the movie, I never paid much attention to the captain-of-the-guard-turned-rebel. But watching the musical now, it turned out I really like the character, if he's performed like this. Mann is a great fit for the role. His Phoebus is well-rounded and three-dimensional - from a ladies' man to a war veteran, then from a dreamer to an agitator, he feels real all the way through.

Having such a likeable Phoebus makes you notice how the musical's Quasimodo-centric ending leaves the captain's fate in the air. I just want to know if he'll ever be okay again... Thank you, Maximilian Mann, for making me care about Phoebus this deeply!

I also want to give big shoutouts to the ensemble and ORSO - Choral Society Berlin's choir, as well as the orchestra conducted by Bernhard Volk. They all sound fantastic together. I was maybe the most impressed by the choir, I think the choral Entr'acte is now my favourite piece of music in the whole show.

The aftertaste

Overall, somehow, I feel this production is slightly less than the sum of its parts. This should hit me harder, feel more exciting. Many times, I felt oddly disconnected from the story.

Maybe it’s because I sat in the very back of the stalls both times and could hardly see any expressions. Maybe it's that both audiences I was a part of were surprisingly calm and quiet, and that affected the mood of the whole performace. Or maybe it's that the production's a replica and the direction would simply work better with the original cast and an American audience? Whatever the case, having seen the Danish production of the same musical, I know it can feel so much more engaging and exciting. The Berlin production is fine and beautiful, but hardly extraordinary.

Both nights, though, the last ten minutes hit the audience hard. Quasimodo's fate and the final chorus punched me in the gut, and I was not alone: suddenly the formerly quiet audience was on its feet and cheering.

Deep down, there's something very touching, very human about this story. I'd say it was well worth seeing both times.

Photos by Johan Persson © Disney