Saturday, September 26, 2009
By Harry Forbes
It’s taken 14 years for Benny Andersson and Bjőrn Ulvaeus’ follow-up to “Chess” to reach New York. Show fanatics may know the score from the deluxe 3-CD Swedish set available as an expensive import way back then.
A truly epic musical based on Vilhelm Moberg’s “The Emigrants” novels (also the source of the early 1970s Liv Ullmann-Max Von Sydow film of that name, and its sequel “The New Land”), Andersson’s music is eons removed from the jukebox tunes of “Mamma Mia,” and only sporadically recalls “Chess” in brief pop-rock moments – most especially in declamatory recitatives – but on the whole, this is a lyrical, symphonic sound, with a folkish, highly atmospheric flavoring.
Original star Helen Sjőholm recreated her lead role, though this time singing the pat in English in Herbert Kretzmer’s translation which, on the whole, she enunciated clearly.
Beginning in the mid 1800’s, the narrative charts the courtship and marriage of Kristina and Karl Oscar, the droughts and other hardships in Sweden, decision to emigrate to America, the arduous sea voyage, their journey from New York to Minnesota where they eventually settle, and the pleasures and vicissitudes of life there.
Among their fellow travelers are religious rebel Daniel (David Hess) and his flock which includes the town outcast, former prostitute Ulrica. Her big act one number, “Never,” had a marvelously sinuous orchestration, and she immediately commanded the stage in a way her fellow cast members, till then, had not. Once in America, Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Kevin Odekirk) ventures to California to find gold, and Ulrica weds the bachelor Jackson (Walter Charles).
Each of the leads had their chance to shine. Sjoholm’s plea to God, “You’ve Got to Be There,” generated the most vociferous ovation. The audience leapt to its feet almost as one, with prolonged cheering. But disillusioned Robert’s haunting “Gold Can Turn to Sand” and Karl Oskar’s “Wildcat Money” won prolonged ovations as well. Despite all these pearly moments, it was the overall musical tapestry that lingers.
Shorn of its spoken dialog, however, it was difficult to get a true sense of how the work might play out in a fully staged production. As it was, pregnancies, miscarriages, deaths and other life passages came and went in relatively quick succession. But it was sensible to give precedence to the music in this particular venue. Would that the hall’s recent “Show Boat” concert had offered a fuller version of the score, and eschewed the familiar drama!
It may have been too much of a good thing, but it’s hard to carp about an abundance of music when most of it is so ravishingly beautiful. Paul Gemignani led the 50-piece American Theatre Orchestra with exquisite delicacy. The orchestrations were outstanding, richly textured, and filled with exotic touches. The top level chorus – mostly Broadway pros – was well integrated into the action.
For once Carnegie Hall’s sound design, often so wretched for non-classical events, was decent, though supertitles would have been ideal for total comprehension of the unfamiliar lyrics. From what could be heard, Kretzmer has done a commendable job.
There was fine use of well written inter-titles which set the scene, in silent movie style, or provided other exposition. There was also a well-judged use of narration, mostly delivered by Pitre.
Director Lars Rudolfsson used just enough blocking to give a sense of the drama, with minimalist but telling interaction between the performers. Natasha Katz’s wonderfully apt lighting was another plus, adding to the mood immeasurably.
The packed audience – Swedish accents were ubiquitous – was ecstatic. This was truly one of the best musicals in concert events, outside the Encores sphere. The planned Decca CD should be a winner. Print this post