Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Manga Classics: Les Misérables

A while ago, when visiting Stockholm with a friend to watch Fun Home and The Book of Mormon, we stumbled across something hilarious in a local bookstore: a Pride and Prejudice manga. It was so over-the-top and ridiculous (Mr. Darcy casually sheds nearly all his clothing to show off his pecs during a proposal), I literally cannot remember the last time I laughed as hard.

Noticing the same publishing house had released a Les Misérables manga, I rushed to buy it, expecting another wild and hilarious ride.

Who knew Manga Classics: Les Misérables (story adaptation by Crystal S. Chan, art by SunNeko Lee, published by UDON Entertainment and Morpheus Publishing) would turn out to be one of the best adaptations of Les Mis I've ever encountered?

If you're unfamiliar with manga, just keep in mind that it's read from right to left.

The musical is the reason I love Les Misérables, so naturally, I kept comparing the two while reading the manga.

My first impression is that the manga is paced better than the musical. Fantine's story and Jean Valjean and Cosette's early relationship get the space they need, while barricade scenes are cut down. The focus stays on the four characters that have volumes of Victor Hugo's original novel named after them – Fantine, Cosette, Marius and Jean Valjean.

Overall, I'd say Valjean's struggles are a little easier to understand in comic format than as musical songs. At only 337 pages (down from Hugo's original ~1,500), I'm honestly amazed how thoroughly the manga explores its characters.

The Petit Gervais moment.

I suppose the style of the art may throw off some of us Western readers (Cosette's eyes are as gigantic as you'd expect), but personally, I adore SunNeko Lee's art – and I'm not even a manga fan. I think the character designs are fitting and the artwork is beautiful and detailed from start to finish.

I'm posting this page for no other reason than that I really, really like Javert holding out his hand to Jean Valjean.

The manga is intended at teenagers, so I was a little afraid it would gloss over the saddest parts of the story. Far from it. A couple of panels are actually too graphic for my tastes, but overall, it does a great, effective job portraying the awful things the characters go through. Fantine's and little  Cosette's fates are equally heartwrenching. The following two pages really stopped me on my tracks.

This is cruel.

And this... I'm not even going to post the previous page, it's seriously too awful to look at.

I also like the portrayal of Javert. The manga doesn't antagonise him, and while it doesn't delve too far into his mind, the characterisation is very book-accurate. I'm especially glad that Javert's extremely black-and-white view of the world is highlighted early on:

This manga gets Javert.

Something almost every adaptation of Les Misérables gets wrong is everything about Cosette.

Take the musical. Fantine sacrifices everything for her daughter, and Jean Valjean risks his life to save the man his adoptive daughter loves – yet their big solos don't even mention Cosette. And when it comes to the character herself... She has as little time onstage as humanly possible, she's a cute kid turned into princess ingenue and that's it.

Luckily, this manga is the opposite of that. Jean Valjean and Cosette's early relationship is given an especially big amount of space, and those pages are some of the best in the whole book.

I adore this.

I absolutely adore this.

(quiet sobbing)

Jean Valjean takes care of her! Becomes a father to her! It's incredible how this, the very thing at the heart of the novel, feels so fresh and new when reading the manga, since it's so overlooked in the musical. It's handled perfectly here (though, to be honest, the focus drifts off of these two during the Paris scenes).

"I cannot let Javert take me away from her," I'm not crying, you're crying.

I'm going to explode.

Marius is also portrayed well. He is the focal character of the Paris part of the story. He's surprisingly three-dimensional, idealistic but a little bigoted and selfish sometimes. At times, you feel just as frustrated and annoyed with him as you do reading the novel.

That's Marius Pontmercy, all right!

Marius and Cosette's love story is a bit sugary but still super cute.


The barricade characters are glanced over with as little detail as possible, and personally, I think that's a good decision. Keeping them in very minor roles helps to keep the focus on Marius and Jean Valjean. This is almost all Les Amis character development we get:

I like Enjolras's design, and how they mercilessly mock him.

Then again, a single page of a comic can be worth a whole chapter in a book – or a full musical song. I think that's especially evident in Javert's suicide:

In two pages, this manga does a better job than any other adaptation of this scene.

The ending of Les Misérables is hopelessly melodramatic, no matter what... But this version did squeeze some tears out of me.

I love the artwork on the page on the left, and also every single thing about this.

Who's crying? I'm crying.

I don't know if you've figured it out yet, but I absolutely adore this manga.

There are a couple of out-of-context details (Marius finds the U.F. handcherchief but Ultime Fauchelevent is never mentioned, Enjolras dies hand in hand with some drunk that surfaces out of nowhere), but in general, Crystal S. Chan's script does a great job getting the story across in a way that's both accurate and easy to follow. It even includes some things most other adaptations omit, like Marius's backstory and the coffin trick Valjean uses to get out of the convent!

Seriously, of your teacher ever assigns you to read Les Mis and you want to take the easy way out, please read this manga instead of watching any of the other adaptations.

I'm not saying a good adaptation cannot take any liberties – despite all my griping, I obviously think the musical is a great adaptation too. But after 150 years of different variations of the story that have taken every liberty imaginable (and with a new, sexy BBC series in the works as we speak)... I'm just really glad to have a compact, contemporary and widely available adaptation that's reflects both Hugo's words and the spirit of his novel. The book is a very heavy read and thus not for everyone, so I think it's good to have a lighter yet accurate version of the story out there.

And now, to help us all dry our tears after those last pages, here's a little goodie from the end of the book to finish off this blog post:

The only time the prisoner number is mentioned in the manga. Somehow, I feel like this is a jab at the musical.

Pages scanned from Manga Classics: Les Misérables, art by SunNeko Lee. Find out more about Manga Classics.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Nordic Reviews: Fun Home

Sometimes, when I hear about a new interesting Broadway or West End production, I don't rush to read the synopsis and listen to the cast recording right away. Instead, if it seems likely the show will be produced somewhere in Northern Europe in a reasonable time, I'll wait – maybe I'll get a chance to experience the show live for the first time.

I lucked out with Fun Home. The Tony-winning musical from 2015 had its European premiere in late April in Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Stockholm, and I and my friend managed to get the last two seats for the premiere!

Maja Rung as Medium Alison and Elin Skarin as Joan

Fun Home, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, is based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir. It tells the story of Alison looking back to her childhood and college years, reliving the events of her past (with adult Alison, college-aged "medium" Alison and small Alison all played by different actors), trying to figure out why her closeted gay father committed suicide shortly after she came out as a lesbian.

That's pretty much everything I knew about the musical going in. Now, I have to admit my Swedish is not especially good. My meagre skills seem to come with an on–off switch. On a good day, I can understand a whole musical and have all my tourist-y conversations in Swedish. On a bad day, I can't handle a cashier asking me if I want a receipt.

I saw Fun Home on a bad day, so I didn't get a hang of half of the dialogue... Luckily, the music and the excitement permeating the premiere audience sucked me into the musical's world. The great thing with musicals is that you know what's going on even if you don't understand every word. Fun Home is a story full of hidden feelings and things left unsaid, so in any case, musical seems like a very fitting format for it. It feels right these characters start to sing when words fail them.

The casting of this production is flawless. Every single actor (Frida Modén Treichl as Alison, Maja Rung as Medium Alison, Fredrik Lycke as Bruce, Birthe Wingren as Helen, Elin Skarin as Joan, Emil Almén in various roles, with Mira Blommé Stahlhammer and Lily Wahlsteen alternating as Small Alison, Hugo Bremberg and Oskar Norgren as Christian and Olle af Klercker and Samuel Falkner as John) is a perfect fit, the performances are honest and true-to-life.

Alison's father Bruce, played by Fredrik Lycke, is a really interesting character. He is always tense and on the edge, but you can still sometimes see a shadow of another, happier and better man he could have been had his life been different. Birthe Wingren's take on Alison's mother Helen's big solo, Days and Days, where she talks about spending years of her life in a loveless marriage, is intense and beautiful.

But really, I want to give an extra round of applause to Mira Blommé Stahlhammer as Small Alison. She is a superstar, so confident in herself and emotionally honest. Her rendition of Ring of Keys, a song where Small Alison recognises something of herself in a butch delivery woman, is so good I couldn't help crying a little. I don't think I've ever been this touched by any child actor's performance.

Actually, all three kids (I believe we saw Oskar Norgren as Christian and Samuel Falkner as John, but please let me me if I remember this incorrectly!) are charismatic and energetic and overall incredibly talented. Their song Come to the Fun Home was certainly one of the highlights of the evening.

Oskar Norgren, Mira Blommé Stahlhammer and Samuel Falkner

An hour and 45 minutes with no pause seems like a rather long running time for a single-act show. In this case, it is not. The mood of Fun Home's premiere audience was very warm and very appreciative, and the show's pacing felt just right. The time passed before I even knew it.

Despite suicide being one of Fun Home's major themes, the show left me feeling hopeful. Alison's father made a desperate decision, and even though Alison sometimes has a hard time retelling the events of her earlier life, I got the feeling she is still doing all right. The hopeful, sometimes humorous undercurrent made the story easier to watch.

Based on this wonderful European premiere, I wish Fun Home a happy and successful conquest of Europe. With a relatively small cast and orchestra, it seems like a great fit for many smaller theatres. So, here's to hoping we'll see plenty of Fun Homes around here in the near future.

Photos by Sören Vilks.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Kotimainen kevätkertaus

Vaikka olenkin juossut esityksestä toiseen ihan entiseen malliin, en ole tämän kevään aikana juuri ehtinyt kirjoittaa näkemästäni. Niinpä nyt, kesäteatterikauden korvalla, ajattelin muistella muutamaa kevään parhaista kotimaisista kulttuurikokemuksista.

Kilpakosijat / Tampereen Työväen Teatteri 


Kuva: Kari Sunnari, Tampereen Työväen Teatteri

Syksyn lempparimusikaalini, Turun kaupunginteatterin ihanan kamala kasarijukeboxhirvitys Rock of Ages, taisi ohjelmistosta poistuessaan jättää sisälleni jonkinlaisen kevyttä mutta kiivastahtista hömppää vaativan mustan aukon. Koska Broadway-kasarirockmusikaaleja ei riitä valittavaksi asti, käännyin seuraavaksi parhaan vaihtoehdon puoleen.

Eli Maiju Lassilan koko tuotantoon perustuvaa, Sari Kaasisen säveltämää kansanmusiikkinäytelmää suoraan suoneen, kiitos.

Oikeastaan ennustin jo vuosi sitten, että jäisin esitykseen koukkuun. Ukko ja poika Sikasen naimaretkisekoilusta kertovassa näytelmässä ei ollut järkevää sisältöä nimeksikään, mutta hyvää fiilistä, suomen kielellä herkuttelua, ääritarttuvaa musiikkia ja vetävää tanssia riitti sen edestä. Tämän kun olisi saanut pullotettua huonoina päivinä nautittavaksi, tai edes levytyksenä mukaan kotiin kuunneltavaksi.

Pohjalaisia / Tampereen Ooppera


Kuva: Petri Nuutinen, Tampereen Ooppera

En voi väittää ymmärtäväni oopperan päälle, vaikka olenkin käynyt Kansallisoopperassa katsomassa sekalaisen valikoiman klassikkoja. Ihailen laulajien huikeita teknisiä taitoja ja ison orkesterin sointia, mutta en ole saanut esitysten teemoista tai tarinoista paljoakaan irti.

Että ei kun ravistelemaan käsityksiä Tampereen Oopperaan Leevi Madetojan Pohjalaisten pariin.

Yllätyksekseni Pohjalaisia-oopperassa oli mukavaa – tai no, niin mukavaa kuin väkivallan kierteestä kertovaa teosta katsoessa nyt voi olla. Tuomas Parkkisen ohjauksessa oli vauhtia ja huumoriakin. Vaikka teoksen musiikki vaatisi vielä monta kuuntelukertaa, että saisin siitä otteen, päällimmäiseksi tunnelmaksi oopperasta jäi sulavasti ja miltei huomaamatta kohtauksesta toiseen siirtyvä, otteessaan pitävä kokonaisuus. Uskaltaisinko jopa sanoa, että tässä oli jotain vähän musikaalinomaista? Joukkokohtauksissa ainakin oli kokoa ja näköä ja Pirjo Liiri-Majavan suunnittelevat puvut olivat kaunista katsottavaa.

Helmikuussa muu elämä piti minut niin kiireisenä, etten tuoreeltaan ehtinyt perehtyä Pohjalaisiin tarkemmin. Esityksen tunnelmassa ja rankassa tarinassa oli kuitenkin jotakin kiehtovaa, joka palasi mieleni pohjalle kummittelemaan moneksi viikoksi. Parempi kokemus kuin arvasinkaan.

(Hatunnosto ohjaajalle kutsuvieraslipuista.)

Näytelmä, joka menee pieleen / Tampereen Teatteri


Kuva: Harri Hinkka, Tampereen Teatteri

Näytelmä, joka menee pieleen (The Play That Goes Wrong) on Lontoon West Endin viime vuosien suurin komediahitti. Suomen ensi-iltansa teos sai Tampereen Teatterissa syksyllä 2016, ja maaliskuussa ehdin viimein mukaan minäkin.

Jutun idea on, että innokkaista harrastelijoista koostuva Polytekninen Draamaseura on vuokrannut Tampereen Teatterin päänäyttämön esittääkseen siellä murhamysteerin "Murha Havershamin kartanossa". Me katsojat saamme kunnian olla mukana ensi-illassa – jossa kaikki, aivan kaikki, menee täydellisesti ja näyttävästi pieleen. Tekniikka, lavasteet, muisti ja pokka pettävät, mutta urhea työryhmämme taistelee tiensä aina mysteerin loppuratkaisuun saakka.

En ole koskaan nauranut teatterissa näin paljon. Miten hauskaa voikin olla huolella ajoitettu ja taidolla esitetty epäonnistuminen! Epäilen, että vitsi ei pysy tuoreena kovin montaa katsomiskertaa, mutta syksyllä aion vielä käydä Kouvolan Teatterissa katsomassa toisen version maailman hilpeimmästä murhamysteeristä.

Samuel Harjanteen suuri musikaalitalkshow / Musiikkiteatteri Kapsäkki

Samuel Harjanteen musikaalitalkshow sai ensiesityksensä Kapsäkissä jo syksyllä 2016. Kevään aikana ehdin katsomoon kahdesti. Show'n konsepti on simppeli: musikaaliohjaajana ja -näyttelijänä tunnettu Harjanne kutsuu vieraikseen kolme musikaalinäyttelijää, jotka juttelevat illan isännän kanssa musikaalijuttuja, laulavat musikaalibiisejä ja kilpailevat musikaaliaiheisissa kisoissa.

Eipä voi musikaalifani parempaa toivoa.

Musikaalitalkshow'ssa on aina ihana tunnelma. Kaikki niin lavalla kuin katsomossa ovat paikalla sen takia, että rakastavat musikaaleja – joko tekijänä tai kokijana, mutta musikaalifanina yhtä kaikki. Ja se tuntuu! Suomessa tällaista pääsee kokemaan huippuharvoin. Fiilis on iloisempi ja innokkaampi kuin parhaankaan suomalaisen musikaalituotannon katsomossa, sillä paikalla ei ole yhtäkään eläkeläiskerhon ryhmäretkeä tunnelmaa rauhoittamassa. Juttelinpa muiden katsojien kanssa tai en, täällä tunnen joka tapauksessa olevani omieni parissa.

Musikaalitalkshow'n jatko on vielä auki, mutta toivon kovasti, että esitys tekee paluun. Nämä illat muistuttavat minua siitä, miksi haluan tehdä töitä teatterin viestinnän ja markkinoinnin parissa – jotta mahdollisimman moni löytäisi tiensä teatteriin kokemaan jotain yhtä innostavaa.

Musikaalisyksyn sävel

Kuva: Tampereen Teatteri

Lopuksi katse tulevaan ja sananen syksystä 2017. Älköön kukaan ottako itseensä, mutta ainakin tämän musikaalifanin näkökulmasta tulossa on kuluvan vuosikymmenen tylsin kotimainen musikaalisyksy.

Joukossa on toki muutama tärppi. Tampereen Teatterin Cats tarjoaa varmana viihdyttävää hötöä ja karismaattisia kissoja. Jyväskylän kaupunginteatterin koko perheen satsaus Peter Pan, jossa ihana Saara Jokiaho esittää nimiroolia, voisi olla mukava katsastaa. Helsingin kaupunginteatterin Myrskyluodon Maija saattaa yllättää iloisesti.

Kevään parhaan julkistusuutisen tarjoili yllättäen Salon Teatteri, joka tuo syksyllä Jekyllin & Hyden kolmatta kertaa Suomeen. Uuden Musiikkiteatteri NYT -ryhmän kännykkäriippuvuutta, anonyymia vihapuhetta ja muita nettiajan mörköjä pallotteleva Photo Sapiens -teos (lisäesitykset Lahden kaupunginteatterin Eero-näyttämöllä) olisi myös kiva saada sopimaan syksyn kalenteriin.

Kokonaiskuva on kuitenkin ankea. Syksyn musikaaliohjelmisto tuntuu pitkälti nojaavan viime vuosituhannelle juuttuneisiin aiheisiin ja iskelmäsävelmiin, joiden ylle kohoavalta katolta kuuluu vaimea viulunsoitto. Mikäs siinä, jos tykkää. Minä en.

Tässä tilanteessa ei auta kuin suunnata katse kauemmaksi. Onneksi jo naapurimaissa on tarjolla kaksi eri Book of Mormonia ja peräti kolme Les Misérablesia.

Ehkä niiden voimin jaksaa vuoteen 2018, jolloin – toivoa sopii – joku suomalainen teatteri täräyttää taas lavalle juuri minun makuuni sopivan yliturvonneen, äänekkään ja/tai verisen megaspektaakkelin.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Nordic Reviews: The Book of Mormon

I'm fairly certain I've mentioned this before, but in any case – The Book of Mormon the musical once helped me out in a surprising way.

I'm somewhat interested in the history of religions, so back when I had to choose the subjects for my high school final exam, I picked the Lutheranism and World Religions test.

One of the questions was about the teachings of Mormonism.

This was 2012, so The Book of Mormon had premiered on Broadway the previous year. I loved the cast recording so much I knew every song by heart. I got the best grade in the test, and I like to think singing All-American Prophet and I Believe again and again in my head while writing helped me to ace the Mormon part. The musical lyrics include a fair amount of accurate information, after all!

And now, with that story out of the way, let's talk about the current Swedish production of The Book of Mormon.

I've seen The Book of Mormon in Stockholm twice now, though to be honest, I didn't plan on seeing this production at all.

It is something of a replica (yawn) and I was also convinced the two leads were way too old for their parts (40+, gasp). It's a fun musical, sure, but not fun enough for me to travel from Finland for it. Actually, after seeing the London production in 2012 and despite liking it, I somehow lost my interest in the musical as a whole.

Then, in February, I left for an impromptu trip to Stockholm. While there, I of course wanted to see some musical. Since I dislike Billy Elliot and the replica Phantom of the Opera way more than I'd dislike even the world's worst production of The Book of Mormon, that was my choice.

That first time, I was pleasantly surprised yet not all that excited. The acoustics and volume in Chinateatern are frankly horrible and a part of the audience was really rude (for heaven's sake, you don't stand up and leave during the encore unless you want to make a point about how much you hate the show). And though the show itself was fun, I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for it myself.

But there was something that hit me during the last scene. So far, I hadn't paid any special attention to any of the individual performances, but when Elder Price (Linus Wahlgren) gave his little speech about how they're still all Latter-day Saints... Something clicked and I realised I should have been keeping an unwavering eye on him the whole time. That moment, I knew there was way more to the character than I had realised so far. I also knew I would absolutely love his performance if I ever saw it again.

I bought my next ticket three days after returning home, and I'm glad I went back.

Upon closer inspection (I hardly blinked, let alone taking my eyes off him), I indeed adored Wahlgren as Elder Price. With a satirical comedy such as The Book of Mormon, it's easy to think of the characters as 2D charicatures – but both Wahlgren's Price and Per Andersson's Cunningham are three-dimensional and go through a tremendous amount of growth. Focusing on the leading performances instead of the full picture opened up a whole new level of this musical for me.

I also should know better about the age thing already. You know, what with my countless complaints about other theatre fans who thought some favourite of mine wasn't the right age or look for their role... Who cares, if they are otherwise a perfect fit.

As you can tell, I enjoyed my second time watching The Book of Mormon Stockholm immensely. It feels like I even understood the Swedish way better (my Swedish skills seem to come with an on/off switch). The whole ensemble is so talented! The choreography is so much fun, and so is the music, if you manage to ignore the acoustics/volume issue. It's something of a replica, sure, but localised enough to feel like its own thing. It's fresh and fun and lively.

Having refound my love for this musical, I'm going back for a third round in December. I think I'll be paying extra attention to Samantha Gurah's Nabulungi then. This time, the guys stole my attention, but I'm sure there's a lot more to her character than what has met my eye so far, too.

In the meanwhile, I'll be relearning the words to every song on the Broadway cast recording, so should the need arise, I'll be able to ace any and all Mormon-related test questions again.

A little piece of fanart.

Photos by Mats Bäcker.
I also wrote a Finnish essay about Tanz der Vampire in the aforement high school final exam.