sunnuntai 5. tammikuuta 2014

Doctor Zhivago – Helsinki 2013

The musical Doctor Zhivago (Michael WellerMichael Korie & Amy PowersLucy Simon) had its third premiere in the world in Helsinki in Autumn 2013. I knew next to nothing about the story beforehand, but based on Wikipedia's synopsis of Boris Pasternak's novel, I expected some overly romantic, epic emotional porn like Miss Saigon, Kristina från Duvemåla or Les Misérables (which I'm not a huge fan of).


To my surprise the musical actually had a really good, intellectual storyline and complex characters that activated my brains instead of merely pushing me into an emotional rollercoaster. The characters weren't black-and-white evil or good – they were humans in an unconventional situation that affected their behaviour and decisions. No pure villains or saints, just humans with both positive and negative traits, humans who make good and bad decisions and try to survive and save their loved ones. The story didn't try to moralize, and I enjoyed seeing a musical that for a change didn't try to make marriage the only key to a happy life. The cheating husband wasn't a jerk with no remorse, the wife wasn't horribly boring or a horrible bitch, and the mistress wasn't an evil seducer running after everyone's husbands. It was possible for Yuri Zhivago to love both of the women, which in turn made the story so heartbreaking, because he actually had to decide between two loved ones instead of love and the society's expectations. I also liked the ending very much.

@ Charlotte Estman-Wennström
One of my favourite scenes was when Yuri is missing and his wife Tonia (the lovely Anna-Maija Jalkanen) comes to see his mistress Lara. Both women feel they should be jealous or hate each other and are confused, because instead they both accept the other's existence and suddenly understand why Yuri also loves the other. Instead of making them hate each other, their love and worry for Yuri connects them. It Comes As No Surprise is also a beautiful song as itself.

@ Charlotte Estman-Wennström
I've seen the musical now twice, with both Anna-Maija Tuokko and Anna Victoria Eriksson as Lara. Both are good actresses and singers, but I preferred Eriksson's more fragile-feeling Lara. Tuokko's Lara was more actively seducing, whereas Eriksson's Lara took situations and encounters with Yuri as they were and went with them. With Eriksson, I felt their kisses and sex were more a wordless decision made together, something that was bound to happen, and it fit the story better than Tuokko's slightly more stereotypical portrayal as the seducer.

Tuukka Leppänen as Yuri Zhivago was pretty much perfect. He grows from this naïve, socially awkward poet into a dutiful but escapistic man who somehow manages to stay sane through a cruel war and the crumbling of the Russia he knew. He's fighting to live as an honourable man, but as his world turns into bombs, anarchy and hunger, he must give up some of his moral principles. I felt that Yuri learned a great deal from Lara, who already in her childhood was used to surviving at all costs.

Antti Timonen's Pasha Antipov, later the crazy killer boss Strelnikov, was a fascinating villain. Pasha is a bit too idealistic for his own good, and in the war his idealism turns into violent mania, but behind all his good intentions and mindless hate, it's actually his love for Lara that drives him on. He reminded me of the nerdy high school student who wants to hang out with the cool guys and turns into a bully to make an impression on the hottest cheerleader of the school. In the end, his ideals have failed him, both his beloved Lara and his fellow cool guys have deserted him. There was something very amusingly Finnish in the end, when Lara has left and Pasha and Yuri sit on the floor, staring into the empty space, pouring their heart out about Her and sharing the last vodka bottle. I halfway expected them to eventually start crying against each other.

@ Charlotte Estman-Wennström
The adaptation from a Nobel-winning novel into a musical had mostly been done very well, though I would have still dropped out some scenes to make the storytelling flow better. For example, I felt the songs with Yuri's son were there only to gather sympathies for a singing child. The whole In This House scene could have been cut and their escape to the train made without explanations, just with the family quickly sneaking past a drunk guard and taking the train to sunrise. Yuri's solo The Man Who Lives up to His Name was so powerful that In This House after it flattened the effect and just made the first act feel prolonged.
 
@ Charlotte Estman-Wennström

Hans Berndtsson does really back-to-basics work when directing his musicals, and Doctor Zhivago is no exception. I guess the directing could be worse, too, but it certainly can't be called very imaginative or creative. People basically just stand around in neat formations and sing.

The music is not something I'd listen outside the show. It is very beautiful, almost in the style of a classical partiture, and I loved listening a big orchestra play it, but the songs aren't very memorable or interesting. The lyrics manage to avoid the worst clichés and the Finnish translation by Sami Parkkinen is quite beautiful (except for some awkwardness, weird rhymes and the random appearance of Huns in the lyrics), but there's a bit too much romance for my taste. The composer Lucy Simon is clearly at her best in describing complex emotions and love, but especially her villain songs lacked power. Strelnikov's No Mercy at All sounded far too nice for the character.

@ Charlotte Estman-Wennström
The set and costume designs by Ralf Forsström were impressive, with various cold and metallic shades of blue, white and red. Combined to stunning light design by William Iles and Kari Leppälä, the huge silvery pipes in the background were a genial idea. Snow, rain, the old grandeur of pre-Communist Russia, war... All done with relatively small set and light changes. The only thing I complain about are the snowsuits of the Russian army, because as good as they do look with the colour scheme, every Finn knows that Russians didn't have them back in WW1. After all, the Russian army's lack of snowsuits was one major reason why the Finnish army was so successful against them in the Winter War 1939–1940.

@ Charlotte Estman-Wennström

As a whole I think Doctor Zhivago is one of the most promising new musicals in the dramatic, story-oriented branch of the genre. It's not perfect and it still had a bit too much romance for my taste, but even the love songs often had some twist that made them interesting. I'm also happy that the Municipal Theatre of Helsinki caught the musical so fast after the Australian production in 2011, because it's one of the best musicals they have done in recent years.

Note: I got my tickets through an ensemble member I know.

Links:

Production homepage (also available in a mix of English and Russian)
Online souvenir programme
Photo gallery

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