Helen Sjholm, Russell Watson, Louise Pitre, Kevin Odekirk, David Hess, Robert Ousley, Greg Stone, Joy Hermalyn, Walter Charles, Michael X Martin, Jessica Vosk
The sense of excitement in the Albert Hall was tangible. Everyone knew of Bjrn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderssons second ever musical, Kristina, but few had heard it live before.
And when it suddenly became clear that the two composers werent nestled out of the way in some box, but sitting slap bang in the middle of the audience, whoops and cheers erupted all around.
Kristina, which is now Swedens most popular theatre piece, premiered in 1995, but this concert performance is the first time that it has ever appeared in Britain.
Based upon Vilhelm Mobergs quartet of novels, The Emigrants, it examines how the farmer, Karl Oskar, and his wife, Kristina, decide to leave Sweden and emigrate to America with several others in 1850. It focuses on the myriad of reasons why different characters wish to make a fresh start, and explores what each one finds upon their arrival.
There is much to merit the show which musically would eclipse the vast majority of Andrew Lloyd Webbers output. The Overture witnesses a single French horn give way to a beautiful melody full of Scandinavian chill, whilst the closing song to Act One, Summer Rose, is full of the promise of the New World. In between there are moving solos such as Kristinas Here I Am Again, comedy ensemble numbers such as American Man, and dramatic showstoppers such as Wild Grass. Unfortunately, however, such highly charged music is accompanied by several weaker numbers (such as an entire song about a stove), with the result that the musical frequently drags a lot more than it should.
More problematic, however, is the way in which the whole piece is rather devoid of action. To an extent, the shows dynamism is generated by the differing stances of the protagonists, and the song We Open Up the Gateways sees the characters clash over their various reasons for wishing to go to America. All the same, even a concert performance cannot hide the fact that for vast swathes of time very little happens. The problem is partly that the characters are defined so much through the words that they sing that it is difficult to read anything into them above what they specifically tell us. As a result, we may care about the people, but not about what will happen to them, because it is hard to look forward, beyond what they proclaim they are feeling in the moment.
The cast is highly accomplished. Helen Sjholm as Kristina has a wonderfully textured voice, capable of conveying warmth, tenderness, determination and despair. As Karl Oskar, Russell Watsons obviously strong voice does not always make for a polished performance, but he certainly delivers his fair share of powerful moments. Louise Pitre is convincing as the whore Ulrike, who leaves Sweden to escape the sanctimonious men who abuse her body, but the greatest accolades must go to Kevin Odekirk as Karl Oskars brother, Robert, whose performance of Gold Can Turn to Sand has some audience members on the brink of tears.
I can picture Kristina going the same way as Ulvaeus and Anderssons other show, Chess, which also enjoyed a concert performance at the Albert Hall two years ago. Chess had considerable success in the 1980s and still enjoys a substantial cult following, but it was never a runaway hit. Kristina, in turn, has already proved its staying power, but I doubt it has enough action, or indeed catchy tunes, to score it a West End run, and it is hard to see it gaining these things without it sacrificing the basic story it sets out to tell.
None of the musicals faults prevented this concert performance from being hugely successful, and if you would like to experience it, last years performance at Carnegie Hall, featuring exactly the same cast and songs, is currently available on the Decca Records label.