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. 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. I just heard of a Chinese production of Jekyll & Hyde where they did a performance with female J/H and male Lucy and Emma. When will Europe be ready for Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde?

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.