22 huhtikuuta 2012

Chess - The Swedish Production DVD (2003)

Anders Ekborg, Rolf Skoglund and Tommy Körberg.
(Photo source: tommykorberg.se)
The Swedish version of Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus's Chess premiered at Cirkus in Stockholm on February 23, 2002, with Helen Sjöholm as Florence, Tommy Körberg as Anatoly, Anders Ekborg as Freddie and Josefin Nilsson as Svetlana. Later a DVD and a (music-wise) complete studio cast recording were released.

There's a synopsis in English in Stacy's Musical Village. The script has been rather heavily re-written, and some songs have been cut and some have been moved and given to a different character. Everything happens in Merano during four days. The first act works quite well and ends with Anatoly defecting to the US in Florence's company, but the second act consists mostly of people telling each other what they think about the situation, and the story doesn't really progress anymore. The second at is quite scattered and there are pointless reprises that make the story drag quite a lot ("Merano" and "Story of Chess", for instance).

Josefin Nilsson & Helen Sjöholm.
(Photo source)
The story also doesn't include a lot of Chess, in the end, not literally and not on the analogy level. There's no Walter de Courcy plotting with Molokov, not much politics in general, and the only threat Molokov makes is that if Anatoly wins he can go with Florence but he will never see his son again, so Anatoly loses and stays with his son in the USSR. Anatoly's wife is also quite a bitch, pressures him, wants him back at any price, and "I Know Him So Well" is more like a catfight over Anatoly.

The production has simplified the whole complex relationship mess quite a lot and made the characters a lot more black-and-white, and I find it quite sad. The production is more show-centered and more megamusical-like in the negative meaning of the word, and it concentrates mostly on the love affair between Anatoly and Florence. They talk a lot about their feelings and childhood and whatnot, and the lyrics are far less complex than in English (or in Hungarian). Also Molokov has gotten an angst song of his own, telling Anatoly how he had to sacrifice his great love to serve the USSR. Freddie spends most of his time drunk.

(Warning, the subs have nothing to do with what she sings. A better video of Someone Else's Story (Inte jag) here.)

But the visuality! I love it. Not so much the costumes or wigs that look quite shabby, but the sets and lights are gorgeous especially in the first act. The stage is big but they use it well; it doesn't feel empty or like set pieces were there only to fill the empty space. The "chess squares" in the background are an excellent idea, showing a half-made-puzzle like photo of Moscow etc. They don't show all, they just give you the idea of the surroundings and atmosphere of the scene.

Like "Where I Want to Be". Anatoly travels by metro, and while I know that an average Hungarian theatre would have built an authentic-looking metro and it's station on the stage, the Swedes show that all you need for a metro is a bunch of people standing huddled together - and the result looks much better. (I have a problem with the Budapesti Operettszínház that has the habit of filling the stage with too much set pieces and props and ensemble, so anything minimalistic and stylish tends to make me overjoyed.)

This video summarizes pretty well everything I like in the Swedish production:

I also adore the orchestrations. I don't know what they do there because I'm no music professional, but the orchestrations feel fresh, light and still deep and full. Minimalistic but complex on the same time. The musicbox-like theme in some of the songs is hypnotizing. There's no cast recording of the 2010 Hungarian concert production, so the Swedish cast recording is the one I mostly listen to. Especially the instrumental parts are heartbreakingly beautiful.

The singers are awesome, and I like their acting, too, though I don't always agree with the way the characters are directed. I'm very picky with female voices, and if I can choose a solo album, I usually prefer to listen to baritones because they somehow tend to be most pleasant to my ears. Helen Sjöholm has a clear, strong and lovely voice, though. No shouting, no screaming, nothing nasal; the voice sounds effortless and pure. Tommy Körberg is one of my favourite Anatolys out there, too, both voice- and acting-wise.

Rolf Skoglund as the Arbiter is rather... unique. I absolutely prefer other Arbiters, but there's something so twisted and weird in Skoglund's Arbiter that despite my dislike I can't help being a bit fascinated by him. He's pretty much the comic relief of the production, though not in the most typical way. The Arbiter's orchestrations are like he: over-the-top, weird and twistedly humorous.

Conclusion: there are things I absolutely adore, like the audiovisuality, and things I'm not fond of, like the storyline and way the characters are shown. I like to listen and watch the Swedish production, but as a theatrical piece telling a story it has its faults, especially in the second act.

15 huhtikuuta 2012

Lili bárónő - Budapest & Kecskemét, Hungary (2010)

Géza Egyházi & Eszter Zavaros. © Katona József Színház
Lili bárónő (Baroness Lili) is the most popular operetta by the Hungarian composer Jenő Huszka and his librettist Ferenc Marton. It's performed by nine actors and, unlike most operettas, doesn't have big and fancy ensemble numbers full of cancan. What I like most about it is the music: it's light, beautiful and funny, and easily one of my favourite operetta scores ever. The songs are also surprisingly well related to the story, which isn't always typical for operettas, either. Some of the best known songs are Tündérkiralynő (Fairy Queen), Egy férfi képe (Portrait of a Man), Cigaretta keringő (The Cigarette Waltz) and Gyere csókolj meg (Come and Kiss Me).

The Story

First we have a Count, Count László Illésházy. He has inherited a family estate and no money, so he has to hire the manor out. Secretly he's also a playwright. Needless to say, he's also charming and has a tad of an adventurous bad boy in him, just enough to make him interesting in the eyes of women.

Enter the pretty but stubborn Lili, her almost-fiancee Frédi and her father Baron Malomszegi. The Baron wants a fancy house and a high-class life to accompany his recently acquired millions. Lili wants to be an actress. Frédi wants to convince the Baron of his high class and fine family to marry Lili.

Attila Pál (Frédi), Eszter Zavaros (Lili) and László Sirkó (the Baron).
© Katona József Színház

Things happen, and accidentally everyone thinks that the Count is in fact a chamberlain in the manor. The Count plays along with the story, not least because it offers a chance to daily meetings with a young sweet Baroness, and the Baron hires him.

Enter Clarisse, a renowned actress and the Count's former mistress who wants him back. Enter Agatha and Krisztína, two old maid aunts of the Count who want a place to live in (and later they both want the Baron, which leads to some interesting attempts to be young again).

Result: lots of misunderstandings, trying to figure out who is in love with whom and who is who and what their motives are, a meeting of the old world's aristocracy and the new world's snobs. In the end everyone finds their true love and gets what they want.

Erika Réti (Krisztína) attempting to charm László Sirkó (the Baron).
© Katona József Színház
The Productions

What I generally like about operettas is that there's never a production that would be similar to some other production. I have seen two very different productions of Lili bárónő, both equally good but in different ways. I really liked the directing in both of them, it was witty and funny and beautiful.

The one played in the Operettszínház in Budapest is kind of a chamber operetta, on an intimate rehearsal stage with about 30 seats in 3-5 rows and only a piano in the corner of the sets. When I first saw the production I didn't understand Hungarian very well and didn't know much about the story, but I nevertheless enjoyed the show, the singing and the dancing. The actors are excellent and it felt magical to see them dance so close to us. Everything happens in the main hall of the Illésházy manor, and with the many doors and situation comedy the performance sometimes reminded me of slapstick, though a slightly more sophisticated one.

My favourite actors in this production would be the perfect Anita Lukács as Lili, Attila Dolhai as Count Illésházy and Szilvi Szendy as Clarisse, but I liked the rest of them, too. The only exception was Dániel Vadász, the understudy Count Illésházy, who seemed too slimy and over-confident to be charming and honestly in love with Lili. I'm glad to see that the theatre has started to cast Attila Dolhai in more mature roles, too, because he's not exactly your basic 16-year-old Romeo anymore and he also sounds much better in operettas than in musicals. But I guess the fangirls and the financial dept. of the theatre just can't let go of their Romeo.

Melinda Hajdú (Clarisse) and
Attila Pál (Frédi).
© Katona József Színház

Miklós Máté Kerenyi (Frédi) and
Szilvi Szendy (Clarisse).
© Operettszínház

The production in the Katona József Színház in Kecskemét was performed on a bigger stage. My favourites were Géza Egyházi as Count Illésházy, Melinda Hajdú as Clarisse and Attila Pál as Frédi, but again the rest of the cast was good, too. Visually I liked this production a bit more, they really had created a gothic ghost-story like manor with pale light and slightly ragged furnishings. The production had a bit fairytale-like feeling in it, ethereal and beautiful but also amusing. There was also something surreal in it.

In addition to the nine actors, there were about 6-8 ghosts hanging around in the castle, mimically commenting the story and occasionally playing some tricks on the Baron and his company. They reminded me of commedia dell'arte characters and clearly were on the Count's side, even if he couldn't see them. In some way he was aware of their presence, though. In the first evening the "chamberlain" wants to have some fun and sings a ghost story about the castle, with the unseen help of the ghosts, after which the Baron and his guests are somewhat reluctant to go to their rooms alone. I wish there were a recording, I love the song and the scene, and Géza Egyházi had some excellent facial expressions in it. One moment that I specially adored was when after the scene the Count sat down on the stairs of the sleeping and half-dark manor, took out a cigaretta, and a ghost sitting behind him lighted a match for him. The Count looked at the match for a while with a slight WTF-look on his face, but then relaxed, lighted the cigaretta with it and started to smoke happily. It was so simple and so sweet.

Clarisse, Count Illésházy and the home ghosts.
© Katona József Színház
I also saw their derniere, in which the ghosts were even wilder than usually. They kept coming and going on the stage, doing all kinds of funny little things and goofing around. One (male) ghost for example stole Lili's red shoes and staggered across the stage in them. One ghost looked confusingly much like the Finnish Marshal Mannerheim, and in the derniere a Russian-looking lady ghost suddenly appeared out of nowhere and took him away with her, which would support my Mannerheim theory. I'm not quite sure what a Finnish President / war hero / etc. would do in a Hungarian manor, but the man looked way too much like him and Hungarian soldiers aren't usually dressed up like that on stage.

Anita Lukács as Lili. © Operettszínház

After claiming in several blog posts that I don't like fluffy and brainless romance in musicals, it's a bit funny to tell that I love operettas when their only point is to be as romantic as possible. I guess I like it how they don't take the romance too seriously while still being happy fairytales. Operettas are the soap operas of the pre-tv era, and they're all about decadence, interesting noblemen, actresses and actors, frivolous ladies and innocent girls and the romance between them - not forgetting beautiful and catchy music and talented singers and dancers. Operettas are my way to be escapistic, to forget everything serious and depressing and everyday-like and to float in a pink cloud where everything turns out fine and the princess gets his prince.

Production homepage (Operettszínház)
Production homepage (Katona József Színház)

13 huhtikuuta 2012

Evita - Helsinki, Finland (2006) +movie

Maria Ylipää as Eva.
© Charlotte Estman-Wennström / HKT
I saw the Finnish production of Evita in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri in 2006, and it was one of the most boring musicals I have ever seen on stage. Halfway the first act my mind started to wander to planning what I'd put on my pizza after the show. The actors felt uninspired, the directing was non-existent and there was zero atmosphere and spirit in the production. I just didn't get anything out of the musical or any hold of the characters. They just were there and sang something, but it didn't tell me anything and I didn't see what was the motive for telling the story. I also didn't like the translation very much, it lacked style.

I liked some visual things in the staging, and Raili Ruutu (nowadays Raitala, the adorable Sarah in the Finnish Tanz der Vampire) was already back then awesome as the mistress, easily the best thing in the production. Last year I was happy to hear she'd be our Sarah, and I wasn't disappointed. Petja Lähde as Che was also good, and I remember liking Sami Hintsanen as Peron, though as I said, they weren't directed very well (like, at all). It was Evita, though, where I got traumatized of Maria Ylipää's voice because her shouted high notes nearly killed my eardrums and gave me quite a headache for the rest of the day. Later I saw her as Elphaba in Wicked and she sounded already much better, but I'm still not a fan of her singing.

After the production I thought for years that the musical itself is boring and didn't bother to get more familiar with it. Last weekend I had to watch the 1996 film with Madonna and Antonio Banderas for studying purposes, and to my surprise I suddenly realized why the musical is so popular. Gosh, it's actually good and has a point and all, it doesn't only show for two hours what a bitch Eva Peron was. It's nice to find new good musicals.

Sami Hintsanen, Maria Ylipää and Raili Raitala.
© Charlotte Estman-Wennström / HKT
I also have to praise Sir Tim Rice's lyrics. For years I have thought that English language in musicals doesn't have anything new and interesting to offer me anymore, but Rice appears to be an exception. His lyrics are clever, witty and deep, and I enjoyed listening to them. The "They need to adore me, so Christian Dior me from my head to my toes" and "I'm their savior! That's what they call me, so Lauren Bacall me" in Rainbow High probably lit a light in my eyes, I don't know why but I really like the way Rice has used the names. After that I watched Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time and took a closer look at the lyrics of Chess and was overjoyed to find a new writer gem (new for me, the rest of the musical world seems to have gotten this already in 1980's). Considering that even this blog's name is adapted from Rice's text, it was about time for me to start appreciating him more.

Now it just really confuses me why Don't Cry For Me, Argentina is always translated in a way that's connected to sadness and tears (Wein' nicht um mich, Kyyneleet pois, Et itkeä saa, Miért is síratsz etc.) when crying in the teary sense has absolutely no point in the song itself, only in the reprise when Eva is indeed dying. I've always wondered why Argentina would be sad for Eva when she has just become the first lady of the nation, but watching the balcony scene in the movie made me realize what the song really is about.

Petja Lähde as Che. © Charlotte Estman-Wennström / HKT
Now I'd like to see a good production of Evita. I could also dare to watch Jesus Christ Superstar with a good cast and directing, although I still feel a bit blah about the musical. The music is too 1970's for my taste, similarly to Hair and the other rock musicals of that era that I'm not very interested in.

Production homepage (Helsinki)
Photo gallery
Souvenir program online

06 huhtikuuta 2012

Les Misérables - Kecskemét, Hungary (December 2011)

Warning for die-hard Les Mis fans: I'm not one of you, though I've learned to like some aspects of the musical, thanks to the two good though different productions I've seen. I only got familiar with the show a year ago and I'm still in the process, so let me start with some of my thoughts about the musical in general.

A video reportage about the show with lots of performance footage:

Unfortunately the story does nothing to me, I can't really relate to any of the characters and their problems. Besides, the musical is too explicitly moving for my taste: all that dying in a lonely spotlight after a miserable life and a heartbreaking solo feels too emphasized and calculated for me, like they'd be flashing a "Cry, bastard, cry!!!" neon sign in front of me, which just leaves me cold. (Yes, I also roll my eyes at films like Titanic.) There's too much pathos and squeezing out feelings for my taste.

One problem is also the length of the musical. Especially the Thenardier scenes feel too stretched and like telling the same joke over and over again, even though all the actor pairs I've seen have been excellent. The source material (ie. The Brick, as fans lovingly seem to call Hugo's novel) is too long to be covered easily in a musical, which leaves me with the feeling that they've had to rush through the plot, and the character development and depth has had to be sacrificed. Being the story-oriented person I am, it disturbs me. I don't really like the musical as a whole, but it has enjoyable moments, nice songs and scenes that work well.

I've also learned to like some the music, especially the ensemble songs, though Bring Him Home is still on the top of my dislike list. I must admit Géza Egyházi's rendition was beautiful, though, but still the song is too slow and painfully high.

Zoltán Miller & Réka Koós
Off to Kecskemét and the Katona József theatre, then. Despite the aforementioned opinions I in the end enjoyed the show, mainly thanks to good actors.

The production was a non-replica, but the directing felt a bit idea-lacking, though technically there was nothing wrong with it and I liked some details. It just annoyed me how everything was explained and ready-chewed and I didn't have anything to think about. Like, there was a text "Building the barricade" projected on the stage and after that we saw, well, the building of the barricade. Some scenes later the projected text was "The barricade" and we were shown a very clear and barricade-ish barricade. No shit, Sherlock? Generally the director was simply showing what happens in a way that didn't leave much room for your imagination.

The sets also showed us everything, every brick wall and gate and tree and building. The sets were elaborate and some of the scenes were very impressing and beautiful, but there were too many set pieces, props and moving parts, and after a while the constant re-arranging of the stage and changing of sets started to steal attention from the actual story and broke the atmosphere. I've usually liked Kentaur's set designs, but Miss Saigon and now Les Mis were a bit disappointing.

Géza Egyházi & Andrea Mahó
The Cast

I saw two different casts, though Géza Egyházi was Jean Valjean on both times. The cast I saw on the first night was rather horrible, and I'm ashamed to admit it but kept checking my watch to see when the badly sung and dragging story would finally end. Luckily on the second night the bad choices had been replaced with better actors and the evening included much less watch-checking.

Jean Valjean - I'm not exactly the fangirling type of person (anymore?), but ever since I saw Géza Egyházi as Count von Krolock in Tanz der Vampire, he has been one of those names that lure me to see shows I otherwise perhaps wouldn't. So far I haven't been disappointed, and his Jean Valjean was no exception. I sometimes have the feeling that JV is confusingly naïve and easily fooled by people like the Thenardiers, but Géza!JV had more guts. I still don't get much out of the character, but at least I was fairly interested in his fate and even felt a bit moved in JV's death scene. Needless to say, I also enjoy his voice greatly.

Javert - Gábor Péter Vincze as Javert didn't impress me at all. He sounded harsh, didn't hit the right notes, didn't act that much and had zero chemistry with JV. He's apparently a big name in Hungary, so either he had a really really bad night or he's highly overrated. Zoltán Miller, on the other hand, was heavenly as Javert. He had a lovely warm baritone that blended nicely with Géza Egyházi's voice, and the men had chemistry with each other and made the story between JV and Javert much more interesting than on the day before. Besides, Miller is rather handsome. :-P

Szandra Fejes, Péter Puskás & Attila Pál
Fantine - Melinda Hajdú on the first evening was okay, nothing special but nothing to complain, either. Réka Koós, on the other hand, rocked my world in the second performance. She's one of my favourite female voices, strong and clear, and her death scene where she had hallusinations about Cosette and seemed so tragically happy about meeting her child again was heartbreaking.

Marius - Péter Puskás was the positive exception in the first show. His voice is a bit pop-band-like, but I really liked his Marius. He seemed quite introverted, thinking and mature, and he very clearly had his doubts about the whole revolution thing right from the start but his loyalty to his friends (or something) made him join them anyway. His bitterness in Empty Chairs was touching. Péter Orth in the second show wasn't very special or interesting and his voice was even more breathy and pop-style, but he might attract someone who likes cute pop boys.

Cosette - Andrea Mahó was Cosette on both nights and I definitely didn't complain. The woman has an angelic voice, she suited the role well and didn't make Cosette annoying though she was innocent and, well, Cosette-ish. I've also seen her as Christine in PotO and liked her, she doesn't make the roles overnaïve.

Eponine - Nóra Trokán, the first night's Éponine, was another sad case of missed notes, but at least she acted quite nicely. Again, Zsazsa Réthy in the next evening sang much better.

The Thenardiers - Both Teréz Csombor & László Sirkó and Szandra Fejes & Attila Pál were entertaining and slimy, though as I said, I feel the roles are too big.

The barricade boys
Enjolras - This production had some kind of an Enjolras problem. Zoltán Kiss on the first night felt like a 45-year-old eternal student who didn't seem like he'd have enough charisma and positive leadership even to get his friends to a pub, let alone to barricades. Imre Aradi in the second show sang better and felt far more enthusiastic, even though he looked a bit too old, too. Many of the other students were also closer to middle-aged. Confusing.

After the first performance I was afraid of how I'd ever manage to sit through the show a second time next evening. Without Géza Egyházi, Péter Puskás and Andrea Mahó I might have fallen asleep. Luckily the second evening was much better and interesting, and I left the theatre with the feeling that I might even want to see this cast again.

Production homepage
Photo gallery one and two
A photo gallery in Facebook