Review of Kristina at Carnegie Hall CD

In theatrical circles, this is quite a high profile review of Kristina at Carnegie Hall, appearing as it does in Playbill.

Review by Steven Suskin:

KRISTINA [Decca Broadway B0014228]

A sticker on the label of the new two-CD Kristina tells us this is “from the composers of ABBA and Mamma Mia!” Anyone expecting Kristina to sound just like “Dancing Queen,” however, is in for a somewhat unexpected listening session.

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus followed their musical Chess — which opened successfully in London in 1986 but lasted a mere two months at the Imperial in 1988 — with the 1995 musical Kristina fran Duvemala. A big, major hit in Sweden. Based on Vilhelm Moberg’s 1949 novel “The Emigrants” and its three sequels, the story tells of a couple who emigrate from small-town Sweden to Minnesota in 1850.

As you might easily foresee, this is a tale of hardship, struggle, calamity and love. The novels are well-known in Sweden, and along the way the books were filmed in two parts (as “The Emigrants” in 1971 and “The New Land” in 1972, both starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann).

Kristina hasn’t had much of a life outside Sweden, but a dedicated set of partisans saw fit to bring a concert version to Carnegie Hall last September. That event — starring Helen Sjöholm as Kristina, Russell Watson as her husband Karl Oskar, and Louise Pitre (the original Mamma of Broadway’sMamma Mia!) as Ulrika, the “happy whore” — was recorded and has now been released by Decca Broadway.

Kristina at Carnegie Hall was at once interesting and unwieldy. Some of the music was quite good — with musical director Paul Gemignani doing an impressive job with the large cast and orchestra — but there was an awful lot of it.

The English-language lyrics, by Herbert Kretzmer, were not up to the music; Kretzmer’s work was helped, in a roundabout way, by the often indecipherable sound. The opening night audience included a large Swedish-American contingent, who seemed happily immersed in the thing (thanks to familiarity with the musical, the novels, or both).

For newcomers to the piece, though, there wasn’t much to hold onto despite strong performances from the principals (especially Ms. Sjöholm, who created the role in Sweden, and Kevin Odekirk as her brother-in-law).

The whole thing comes off measurably better on the CD. It is still a long and mostly severe piece, although the Messrs. Ulvaeus and Kretzmer do lighten things with a big production number about lice called “Lice.”

The Carnegie Hall mounting of Kristina was presumably intended as a first step toward a hoped-for Broadway mounting of this epic musical from the guys who wrote the songs for the blockbuster bonanza Mamma Mia! ButKristina, a great crowd pleaser in Sweden, seems unlikely to enthrall American audiences.

1 thought on “Review of Kristina at Carnegie Hall CD”

  1. After repeated listenings of “Kristina”–admittedly without any dialogue of consequence–there is a MAJOR problem with many of the songs: they are story songs that tell us about something that has happened: “Gold Can Turn to Sand” recounts Arvid’s death rather than telling us about it; “Wildgrass” tells us about how Karl harvested the land rather than expressing his emotions as he did it. “Never” describes the abuse she suffered, rather than seeing it, “Home” is yet another story where she tells her kids how she felt when seeing an eastbound ship heading back home instead of allowing us to see her sadness when she is on deck.

    The best song of Act 1, “Summer Rose” has a colossal problem: the lyrics make no sense. Kristina begins by telling her newborn that “All is well now peace at last, you were curled up inside of me safe and warm…now that blissful time is past, you were thrown out into the world where you will have to fend for yourself without me.”

    Well,which is it? Is it “All is well” or is the kid, having been “thrown” into the world going to have to face it on his own without his mother?

    Worse still is the problem subsequent to the musical’s show stopper: Kristina and Karl lost a child to starvation in Sweden, her beloved brother-in-law has died of typhus, she has a miscarriage would could have fatal consequences if she is intimate with Karl again and she has just had a one and one with God and we have no reason to believe her faith has been restored and yet she tells Karl surely God will protect us if we have a roll in the hay,

    So much for that theory, she dies. What was this faith based on? Especially after God had turned a deaf ear to her prayers on no less than three occassions.

    Benny’s music carry’s this theatrical peace but it will buckle under such the weight of these structural problems.

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