Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Book of Mormon, Det Ny Teater

Seems like all musicals I've seen lately deal with religious themes. After Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Prince of Egypt, last Saturday, it was time for the Danish production of The Book of Mormon in Copenhagen's Det Ny Teater.

Of course, compared with the rest of that lot, the satirical and parodical Book of Mormon is a different thing entirely. Lately, this story of two clueless Mormon missionaries in Uganda has sneakily become one of my favourite musicals – I thought I didn't much like it, but somehow, I've still seen it in three different countries during the last year alone.

Let's see how the Danish production fares.

In all honesty, I'm still confused Det Ny Teater's production, directed by Kasper Holten. It had plenty of moments I enjoyed, but somehow, I'm still baffled by it. So, to clear my mind, maybe I'll start off simply by listing some details.

Things I enjoyed:

  • Price's moves! Silas Holst is a professional dancer, and that shows. His footwork during All-American Prophet is a joy to watch.
  • All of the Ugandans have plenty of personality, more than in any other production I've seen. Their costumes by Stefen Aarfing are also nice.
  • Mafala (Robert Bengtsson) and Nabulungi (Lea Thiim Harder) have a very sweet father-daughter relationship.
  • The General's understudy was on, so Joseph Smith was played by a lady in Joseph Smith American Moses.
  • The Mission President's long, long silence after the Ugandans finish their play. Hilarious.
  • The orchestration and the orchestra, conducted by Per Engström. Top notch! There are many new, fun little details in the orhcestrations (and the variation in the volume is a welcome change after seeing and hearing the 120-dB-at-all-times Swedish production).

Things I didn't enjoy:

  • The sets and the video projections. To my tastes, the sets by Stefen Aarfing are a bit too sparse and sleek, and together with the naivistic video projections, they create an odd combo. 
  • Carsten Svendsen's Cunningham is too clean-cut. By looks alone, were it not for the glasses, you could mistake him for Price.
  • Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. They have a really impressive-looking laser show on a dark stage that almost makes the scene feel scary for real – but that's hardly the point.
  • Nabulungi is not happy after her babtism. I think it's way funnier if they, uh, reach the climax of being babtized together.
  • Cutting Nabulungi's sad Hasa Diga Eebowai reprise.

So, plenty of good and some confusion. In the end, I think the problem is not in the details – it's that the overall tone of the production feels a little bit too realistic for my tastes.

The direction of this production is more drama-like than usually. Both Price and especially Cunningham feel really easily relatable, the stereotypical aspects of both leads and the Ugandans are somewhat toned down and certain serious moments are more serious than ever. That, in turn, makes the moments of bad taste seem ever worse and the underlying severity of the whole story feel a bit too real. While it's nice they're trying something new with the material, I'm afraid that for me, it's not really working.

A fellow blogger has a good point when they say this production hasn't quite found the right balance in between originality and the original story. Check out their analysis. I agree with them, I think some scenes have a slight reinventing-the-wheel vibe going on.

This is exemplified by the scene where the General shoves the titular book up Price's behind. They tear his pants down, lube the book and make it exceedingly clear what is going to happen next. It's certainly daring and shocking to show it, but when you stage the scene like that, the reveal of the x-ray is not as suprising and therefore doesn't elicit such a huge response.

Ultimately, I'd like to quote The Simpsons: still funny, but not ha-ha funny. 

This production of The Book of Mormon is entertaining and every aspect of it is professionally done, but somehow, it's not quite the a-laugh-a-minute musical I know and enjoy. I've seen The Book of Mormon in all Scandinavian countries now, and in Sweden and Norway, the audience literally screamed with laughter. Here, the audience reactions were more subdued. Just like the production itself.

Glad I saw it once, but wouldn't necessarily go for seconds.

Photos by Miklos Szabo.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Prince of Egypt, Fredericia Teater

Please note: Fredericia Teater invited me to see their production of The Prince of Egypt for free.

I would have wanted to love this musical.

Dreamworks' 1998 animated movie The Prince of Egypt is one of my top favourite animations, even top favourite movies, of all time. It retells the Biblical story of Moses, combining intense music with beautiful visuals to such an effect I cannot watch it without crying.

So, hearing the world premiere of a musical based on the movie was going to take place in Fredericia Teater, Denmark (the very same theatre that brought us that amazing production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), as an American/Danish co-production – well, you try not getting excited. I attended the opening night last Friday.

I would have loved to like it, but I have to be honest. It was a complete mess.

The story of the Dreamworks picture (directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, screenplay by Philip LaZebnik and Nicholas Meyer, songs by Stephen Schwartz and score by Hans Zimmer) is based on the Book of Exodus and can be summarised in a couple of short sentences: Moses and Ramses are brothers. God gives Moses a difficult task. The brothers turn into enemies.

The movie starts off with the following disclaimer: While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.

The new musical is written by LaZebnik too, but instead of respectfully expanding upon the movie while keeping in mind the story's Abrahamic origins, it serves us an unfocused, childish jumble of new characters, scenes, and motivations. The subtlety, beauty and indeed integrity of the original film is thrown out of the window. Instead, we get less-than-memorable new tunes from Schwartz, cringeworthy jokes and an ending so naïve and sappy it puts all Disney fairytales to shame.

Let me walk you through this.

The first act is not without its problems, but, in the grand scheme of things, it's quite serviceable. You have baby Moses in the basket on the river, Moses and Ramses growing up together, their father the Pharaoh raising his boys with an iron fist and insisting that crown prince Ramses shall not be the weak link to break the chain of their mighty dynasty. You have Moses killing a guard, running away to the desert and meeting his destiny.

It's not perfect but leaves you curious for the second act – which is where all hope is lost.

Where shall I start? Should I first tell you about the comic relief-y song about slavery, or maybe the evil high priest who keeps pressuring Ramses into making bad decisions? Or about Moses's first miracle being, instead of his staff turning into a snake, him stumbling into the Nile and accidentally turning the water into blood? Or how, in the end, Moses and Ramses make amends and the force ghost of their father the Pharaoh comes back to bless their brotherly union?

I am serious with this.

Some more details before delving into further analysis. Tzipporah tells Moses and Ramses she is not going to dance for them, while sexily dancing. Moses doesn't help Tzipporah escape, he barely lets her out of her chains so she can dance better. Moses only stops the guard beating the slaves when he starts hitting his sister Miriam too. Moses and Tzipporah flirt while watching sheep mating. Ramses and Moses make sexist jokes about their wives. Moses visits his ailing adoptive mother, who scolds him about sending the plagues upon Egypt. The burning bush scene lasts for about 30 seconds. The ghost of the Pharaoh teaches Moses that sometimes you just have to kill a bunch of babies to make things work.

Besides the complete lack of focus, the musical has a really vague, disappointing relationship with God, morality and the supernatural.

No matter whether you're a believer or not, if you're adapting the story of Moses, you have to accept that God is going to be one of your major characters. Or so you would think. Here, blink and you miss the burning bush – it doesn't get its own scene, it's seriously a sidetrack in the first act finale – and even the miracles Moses performs are glanced over. All the moral lessons are heavy-handed, and instead of Ramses making his own bad decisions, a moustache-twirling high priest keeps pulling the strings and promptly gets killed off for his evil deeds.

I understand turning a 90-minute-movie into a musical requires changing things and adding new material, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why all subtlety, respect and trust in the audience's capability to think for themselves has to be lost in the process. In the musical, they would have had a fantastic chance of exploring things like Ramses coming to terms with his own mortality (all his life, he's been told he's a living god, but then his brother lines up with a deity more powerful than him) or, say, the relationship in between Moses and his biological siblings.

But what do we get?

Force ghost Pharaoh and the power of love, that's what.

Fredericia Teater's production, directed by Scott Schwartz, has its bright moments – above all else, Sean Cheesman's innovative, beautiful choreography and the vocals of leading man Diluckshan Jeyaratnam.

Cheesman's choreography and the talented dancers are the true stars of the show, I only wish there was even more space for dance. The dancers form the river, the horses and chariots, the desert sand, the burning bush... There are also some more traditional but nevertheless impressive dance breaks. Through Heaven's Eyes is absolutely wild.

When it comes to the actors' performances, besides admiring Jeyaratnam's vocal chops, I was entertained by Mads M. Nielsen's performance as Pharaoh Seti. He chews the scenery, shouts and yells and looms around, it's all rather hammy and very amusing. For the most part, though, the performances felt rather one-note to me. Maybe that's because the characters are written as such, or maybe I'm just not the biggest fan of Scott Schwartz's style of directing, seeing I wasn't too hot on his Hunchback, either.

The visuals are hit-and-miss. The minimalistic sets by Kevin Depinet and the digital scenography by Jakob Bønsdorff Eriksen are pretty. The costume design by the Tony-winning designer Ann Hould-Ward, however, looks cheap and weird and honestly ugly, not quite modern but definitively not period either.

The physical production would be all right, though, were it not for the mess of a script and lackluster songs. You cannot mask such fundamental problems, no matter how high your production values are.

How I wish this musical would have been worth seeing.

The Prince of Egypt is a gorgeous movie. The good thing is that no matter what the musical is like, no one's going to take that away from me, I can still enjoy the film whenever I want to. But I know how eagerly the musical fandom has been looking forward to the musical adaptation, and I think it's a huge shame this is how it turned out to be.

I suppose they're still testing the musical out in Denmark and, hopefully, are making changes to it before trying to produce it anywhere else. They have to do a lot, a lot, to make this work, but I wish they'll go to the trouble.

Both the movie and the age-old story of Moses deserve a way better musical adaptation.

Photos by Søren Malmose.
Also read The San Francisco Chronicle's review of the Californian run of this international production – not much was fixed in between that and the Danish run, it seems like.

P.S. About the songs from the original movie: they're still absolutely gorgeous, even if all that remains of Playing with the Big Boys is the intro and The Plagues has been combined with another, inferior tune. The former I could forgive, but the latter... If you've ever heard the song, I'm sure you understand why I cannot.
P.P.S. The crossing of the Red Sea was done by splitting the orchestra stalls in two. Sorta impressive.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Early 2018 Recap

I'm still alive!

From the first days of 2018, I've been really busy with many new projects (first and foremost the musical podcast I co-host, listen to our playlist of interviews in English here), so though I've missed writing, I haven't had enough time to blog in the past months.

I have, however, had time for theatre – so here are three mini-sized reviews of productions I've seen as of late.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Oscarsteatern

Sara Jangfeldt and Andreas T Olsson. Photo by Mats Bäcker.

First, a macabre little romp to get this year going!

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder tells the story of a man who finds out he's a distant relative of a rich aristocratic family. Soon, he figures out that the only way he's ever going to inherit the family fortune is to murder his newfound relatives in increasingly imaginative ways...

Henrik Dorsin, who plays the D'Ysquith family (all the relatives meeting their end, that is), is advertised as the big star of the newest Swedish production. He is funny in his multitude of roles – but my personal favourites are Andreas T Olsson and Sara Jangfeldt as the murderous gentleman Monty Navarro and his feisty sweetheart Sibella. You know how you sometimes take a liking to an actor immediately, how your gaze is drawn to them and just watching them onstage makes you happy? Both Olsson and Jangfeldt had that effect on me.

I have to mention that I'm not too enamored by the portrayal of women in this musical. The cheerfully self-centered and calculating Sibella is fun, but her counterpart Phoebe, who's sweet and kind and only wants to marry for love... yawn.

Overall, though, I like the characters and the story. The tunes are not especially catchy, but the lyrics are witty, and many scenes made me laugh out loud.

Sometimes, a light-hearted tale of murder is just what you need. A fun, yet not all that memorable experience.

Godspell, Tampereen Työväen Teatteri

Please note: I was invited to see this production for free because we made a podcast episode partially about it.

In the middle, Sonja Pajunoja as Jesus. Photo by Kari Sunnari.

I knew nothing of Godspell beforehand except for that it's composed by Stephen Schwartz and about Jesus. Turns out, it's a full-blown concept musical based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Parables of Jesus and praise of God via vaudeville-ish song and dance numbers.

Man, the 70s gave us some pretty odd musicals.

It took me a while to warm up to this. To me, the concept feels like a Christian youth club on steroids – Christianity is cool, y'all!! For someone like me, who's always felt averse of organized religion, it felt a bit too revival-meeting-like to have all that energetic gospel with hardly any criticism mixed in. Or maybe it's just too American for my tastes, praising God out in the open like that. In Finland, religion is generally a much more private matter.

But as the show went on, I did warm up to it. Sonja Pajunoja is a charismatic Jesus, kind and loving yet firm when the situation calls for it. The whole ensemble, from Tampere University of Applied Science's Music Academy, is bursting with talent and energy. Not to mention the super catchy music.

So, Godspell. A little awkward, but in a really cheerful way.

Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert, Åbo Svenska Teater

Please note: I was invited to see this production for free because we made a podcast episode partially about it.

Listen to Alexander Lycke sing Gethsemane.

Godspell might have been a bit too much for me, but for my tastes, Jesus Christ Superstar has just the right mix of religious themes and cynicism. It is one of my top five favourite musicals. The last time we had it in Finland, I saw it eight times in ten weeks and it was a cathartic experience every time.

I haven't seen JCS since those eight times... until this March, that is. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a touring concert production, performed by the Swedish rock band Astrakhan, helmed by Alexander Lycke as Jesus and featuring Mats Levén as Judas.

I just read an interesting analysis on Jesus Christ Superstar by a fellow blogger. It discusses how JCS feels stuck in the 90s because composer Andrew Lloyd Webber uses his veto power to stop major productions reinventing the material in any substantial way. Am I glad I live north enough that ALW doesn't seem to care what's going on here!

This concert had many of the elements the productions criticized in the analysis don't – namely, truely unique rock/progressive/whatever-you'd-call-that arrangements (here's how Astrakhan defines its music: "With love for hardrock and hatred of the genres conventions and standardization") and impressive, improvised solos (a full-blown drum solo in JCS, how about that). The production had a rather simple rock concert aesthetic with some striking projections, and despite being a concert first and a musical second, the story still snuck up on you.

Fully staged productions of JCS are their own thing, but when it comes to concert editions, this was as good as it gets. It's like the music was meant to be played like this, with a small band and a loud volume. It was mesmerizing.

Some of the news outlets that covered the concert mentioned that it could become an Easter tradition. I truely hope so. I would love to experience this again.

P.S. Listen to our podcast interview (in English) with the leads of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar!