26 toukokuuta 2012

Concert review: Kaikki musikaalista!

Kaikki musikaalista! was a dramatized musical concert with the students of the music conservatory of Tampere, TAMK and PIRAMK last February in Pyynikkisali in Tampere.

Giving the concert the title "All about musical" made my inner activist for European musicals grunt, because the better title would have been "All about Anglo-American musical", but let's not get into that. ;-) I'm so unfamiliar with the Broadway classics that it's almost embarrassing to admit it, but the concert was a great quick start guide on them for me.

The songs went chronologically all the way from the early musicals of 1920's to My Fair Lady, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Book of Mormon, from classical to pop and rock, with songs like "The Phantom of the Opera" that are familiar to everyone and other songs that get quite rarely performed. The balance between old and new and well-known and specialities was good, there was something for everyone. The concert was accompanied by a 20-piece live orchestra, and altogether there were about 50 people on stage. Apart from some familiar faces I have no idea about the names of the singers and dancers, but they were all excellent. I hope at least some of them will later end up to Finnish theatre stages. Some already have, because I spotted at least Essi Hannuksela, the gorgeous dream-Sarah from Tanz der Vampire in Seinäjoki, among the dancers. (Some rehearsal photos in her blog.)

The company from The Company. (Source)

The highlight of the first part was an abridged half-an-hour version of Stephen Sondheim's Company. I have mixed opinions on Sondheim: I worship his storytelling and lyric-writing skills, but his music mostly does nothing to me. I've tried and tried to give his compositions a chance and I know they're hugely appreciated for a good reason, but while his music pretty and all, I just don't get into it. This Sondheim Shortened way of getting to know his musicals was perfect for me. They also sang it in Finnish, and at least without knowing the original text I liked the translation, it had some very funny moments. The performers acted and sang very well, and the whole sequence was excellently done.

My other favourites were the My Fair Lady section (in Finnish) with the most adorable Freddie ever, "Macavity" from Cats, "Do you hear the people sing" from Les Misérables and the hilarious "Hello Song" from The Book of Mormon. There were also some really beautiful older pieces, but unfortunately I don't remember the song names. The dramatizing was mostly very well done, and I liked the orchestrations and the orchestra. Some of the costumes looked understandably a bit cheap, but otherwise there wasn't any feeling of a "student-like" atmosphere: everything was professional.

(For those interested in my opinion on the epic and eternal Who Is The King Of Musicals war between fans of Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber: I'm for neither. I respect them both, like some things in both's work and appreciate their influence on the various genres of musical, but neither is my personal favourite.)

"Somebody loves me..." (Source)

On a totally unrelated note, Les Misérables will come to Tampereen Teatteri in 2013, and someone has created a petition for a new Finnish translation. I got into the musical fandom about ten years ago, and already then I heard legends of the horrible Finnish translation of Les Mis. In the golden Geocities times there was even a website with some of the song lyrics, and now they're serving as Finnish subtitles on the 25th Anniversary Concert DVD. The legend seems to be true: the translation is (unintentionally) rather hilarious and often impossible to understand. As a phenomenon this sudden awareness of musical translation quality is interesting - people actually demand for better texts, and at least in this case it's not because of the "it's a translation so it sucks" attitude.

24 toukokuuta 2012

The Producers - Budapest 2010

My taste in musicals is quite specific, but nowadays I like to go and see all kinds of musicals if I get the chance, just out of curiosity. Budapest is for me the perfect place for it, because there are several shows playing simultaneously and the theatres are all repertoire theatres, so already one theatre performs several different musicals per week. The tickets are also cheap, at least when compared to the big theatres in West End, Broadway, Vienna and Germany, and the quality is mostly excellent. I've found some really great shows this way and have had my prejudices proved wrong many times. My favourite examples are Spamalot and Avenue Q: I went to theatre without knowing anything about the show and came out with a stomach ache from all that laughing.

The Producers, though, has been one of my biggest disappointments in theatre, even though the production in the Madách Theatre in Budapest was technically good and I didn't have very high hopes to start with. The humour and the music just didn't match my taste at all and the story didn't have anything to offer for me. The actors were good and did what they could with the characters, but it wasn't enough to save the evening.

By this point I had learned enough Hungarian to understand some jokes, and since they had the original English libretto as surtitles, I could also read the original lyrics*. I had the feeling that I've heard all the jokes before in some B-class sitcom or joke collection or in school when I was 12. There wasn't anything original, radical or shocking in them; they felt just lame, forced and unimaginative. It's not that I'd have a problem with jokes about gays, sex, blondes and Hitler as such, because it's very well possible to make good jokes about those topics, but the jokes in the musical simply felt childish. And since the story of the musical is one big joke about gays, sex, blondes and Hitler and squeezes everything out of those topics, I started to get rather bored after 15 minutes. Besides, Ulla's "Swedish" accent wasn't Swedish at all. :-P

I like the general idea of the show - a conman-like producer's attempt to make a really bad musical about Hitler and get away with the production money - but the characters wrapped around it felt lame and one-sided. There was a funny scene/song or two, like something with hilarious fake pigeons and Leo Bloom's office life scene. Now when I watch the video, I think I could like a scene or two out of context, but a whole musical with the same joke recycled over and over was too much.

At some point I also got an overdose of the Broadway-like dance routines that accompanied almost every scene. I'm not a fan of the most stereotypical Broadway style of making musicals, and even though The Producers partly seemed to be a parody of it, that joke got old quite quickly, too. I did like the staging, and the sets looked great.

I never saw The Producers in Helsinki when it played there back in 2007/2008, but here's the Finnish trailer if anyone's interested. The Hungarian production also seems to have closed, after four years and 200 performances.

* Note: this is not the way to do theatre texts. There's too much text in the lyrics and you don't have time to read them, plus half of the time they don't have much to do with what people are singing or saying on stage. I'm Finnish and am used to reading subtitles but I still couldn't get much out of them, so I can imagine how difficult it must be for someone in whose country everything foreign in TV and movies is not subtitled.

18 toukokuuta 2012

Anna Liisa - Tampereen Työväen Teatteri (May 2012)

Suvi-Sini Peltola and Anna Liisa's wedding dress fabric.
© Jyrki Tervo / TTT
Anna Liisa is originally a play written in 1895 by Minna Canth, a feminist, modernist and probably the most influential female playwright in Finland. The story tells about a young woman Anna Liisa who is about to get married with a man called Johannes, but her former love Mikko suddenly returns to the village and wants Anna Liisa for himself. Four years earlier he made Anna Liisa pregnant and left from the village, and Anna Liisa ended up giving birth in secret and suffocating the newborn baby in panic. Mikko's mother buried the infant under a spruce in the forest, and the whole baby affair remained a secret between the three. Now Mikko and his mother are trying to blackmail Anna Liisa to marry Mikko by threatening to tell everyone about the dead baby. Anna Liisa loves Johannes and has been quite traumatized by the death of the baby, so she's not willing to marry Mikko who left her in trouble and now reminds her of the infant.

The story is so well-known that they don't even tell it in the program but assume that everyone is familiar with it. I'm in the minority who has never seen it on stage or read it in school, so I knew nothing about it beforehand. It was nice to go and be surprised, for a change. The musical version is composed by the Finnish rock/folk/etc. lyricist and singer Pauli Hanhiniemi and the modern folk music group Hehkumo, and both also perform in the musical. They even released a cast recording, though the songs are in wrong order and the CD case claims that it's a soundtrack. :-P

The Cast & Visuality

The cast was very good, could sing and act and even dance the sometimes quite challenging-looking choreographies that were done by the modern dance group Tanssiteatteri Tsuumi. Especially Suvi-Sini Peltola in the title role was almost breathtaking, anxious and scared but not overdoing it. She also sang and moved beautifully and had great chemistry with others. Jari Ahola was rather perfect as Mikko, he was an arrogant bastard but you could still see why Anna Liisa used to liked him. I've previously seen Ahola as Billy Flynn in Chicago and in the title role in Schaeffer's Amadeus, and I really like him. Mika Honkanen as Mikko's mother was excellent, sort of a comic relief but still the bad, um, guy, and I adored his dance moves. (I only now realized that it was he who played Frank'N'Furter in the legendary Finnish Rocky Horror Show production in Seinäjoki in 1995. I'm kind of glad I didn't recognize the name before the show...)

© Jyrki Tervo / TTT
Speaking of the choreographies, I know nothing about modern dance but they did look impressive and were even amusing.

My favourite part of the musical was its sets and lights. The sets were quite minimalistic, with mostly open stage with only a stool or two and a dark spruce forest or a lake in the background. There was something skeleton-like and threatening in the spruces, and they created the perfect visuality for Anna Liisa's guilt-ridden and in the end nearly crazy mind. The costumes were a bit boring and ugly and felt a bit out-of-place against the darkly beautiful sets (which was probably intentional), but I liked Anna Liisa's dresses.

The Music

They used Canth's original play in the spoken text parts and had just made some minor cuts and added the songs. I'd have hoped that they would have used Canth's original text in the lyrics and used songs to take the story on, but now the songs mostly stopped the action. In fact, the musical was more just Canth's play accompanied with songs. All in all I sometimes got the feeling that the person(s) who wrote the music didn't have a very good sense of drama or of what works in stage context and what doesn't, but as such the music was still better than I've heard in other original Finnish musicals.

Many songs were sung by the cast, and some of them were a part of the plot and added something new or deeper to it, like "Siksi", "Kuusenpihkaa" and "Suolammen vettä". These were my favourites and the most meaningful ones, and they also had the most impressive lyrics. Many songs (too many for my taste), though, were kind of just comment songs sung by Pauli Hanhiniemi, the ensemble or some cast member. Often those songs didn't have much to do in the plot and they could easily have been cut without losing anything, and even their lyrics were a bit lame. Especially the second act had many of these, like "Ootteko nähneet mun sydäntäni" sung by Hanhiniemi and some woman, and "Täs on metsän kaunis tupa", a totally random wedding song sung by Pirkko, Anna Liisa's little sister. Anna Liisa herself had only one short song.

The Story

© Jyrki Tervo / TTT
The idea of having Minna Canth herself as a narrator of the story was interesting but it didn't completely work. Especially the beginning was too Canth-centered, like they'd try to make Anna Liisa's story more autobiografical than it is and underline its meaning to Canth herself instead of letting the story work on its own. After the most narrative part was over, I liked how they used Canth's character, though. For example, once Anna Liisa wanted to escape an unpleasant situation but Canth forced her to stay on stage, and after nasty things started to happen to Anna Liisa, Pirkko was clearly angry at Canth for writing the story that way.

The ending was a bit confusingly made. After Anna Liisa confessed and was taken to prison, Pirkko started to dance and sing the reprise of "Kaikki ilo", a very joyful and energetic song that started the whole musical. I'm still not sure what they wanted to tell with the song, but the lyrics didn't fit the situation at all and the song felt a bit too much like a poor attempt to wrap up the story. It also didn't feel like a "life goes on so let's try to get over this" song, but that's still the best explanation I can think of. Or then someone had an odd way of showing that people are happy because Anna Liisa at least got peace of mind.

© Jyrki Tervo / TTT
Speaking of that, I'm not completely okay with how the play ends, but I guess its point is to make people think. The idea of a person going to prison and getting all the responsibility about the crime because she needs to find peace with God just disturbs me. I guess it has something to do with general Finnish attitude to religion: in some cases - like this - it's all about punishing, despair and "I deserve all the unhappiness because God wants to punish me for whatever reason I can come up with, so I'll make myself as unhappy as I can". I won't deny Canth's talents and meaning for Finnish society - she has her own flag day and all! -, but I'm not a fan of her realism in fiction. Her plays are simply too depressing for my taste.

Generally the show was quite meta-textual, with people telling or commenting the story and thus distancing it from the audience. The band also played on stage and sometimes took part in the scenes. I'm not sure if I'd have chosen the meta way myself, but it was interesting and suited the play well.

The musical version was quite modern in many ways and not a musical in the most traditional sense of the word, and I found it very refreshing. It's far from being my favourite musical, but as a theatrical piece it was mostly well done and interesting to watch. There were parts that didn't work, like some of the songs, but as a whole the musical worked well.

Tampereen Työväen Teatteri
A TV reportage from the rehearsals in Yle Areena