Kristina

Music by Benny Andersson and lyrics by Björn Ulvaeus, English lyrics by Björn Ulvaeus and Herbert Kretzmer
Royal Albert Hall
(2010)

Production photo by Chris Christodoulou

Kristina may have been created by the song-writing duo of superstar band ABBA but it could not be further from the mega-hit Mamma Mia!. This is something more consequential and sombre and much less commercial.

This is musical theatre on an epic scale and reminiscent of Les Miserables but for that work being mercifully shorter - the original Swedish language version, Kristina från Duvemåla, ran for a Wagneresque near four hours and even after pruning it now comes in at around three and half.

The piece is based on the novel quartet of Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg and follows the story of deeply devout and fearful Kristina, her dutiful and hardworking husband Karl Oskar and their children who, together with some of the villagers, leave the mid nineteenth century poverty stricken Swedish countryside for America.

It's an episodic tracing of the family's privation on the farm, the wretched three month journey by boat to America and the struggles of making a new life against the odds. Their adversities are made all the greater by the arrival of many children until finally Kristina's ill-health reaches the point that, after eight pregnancies, another one would prove life-threatening.

Andersson and Ulvaeus' original stage show of Kristina premiered in the mid-nineties, ran some four years and picked up a number of awards as did the cast album which covers three CDs, but it was not until autumn of last year that the show received its English language premiere in a concert version at Carnegie Hall, and what was offered at the Royal Albert Hall this month was a reprise of that production.

It was an evening of toe curling, passion and standing ovations. The lush, occasionally haunting, score peppered with operatic aspirations was delivered by the Symphony Orchestra under the baton of no less than Drama Desk and Tony Lifetime Achievement Award-winning Paul Gemignani. The music soared rhapsodically as if to fill every nook and cranny of the vast hall, but it did so occasionally at the expense of overwhelming the lyrics and diminishing the artistry.

In some instances this inadvertent impact on the lyrics could be considered an advantage since they are marred by extreme banality and clonking rhyming, which I don't recall in Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics for Les Mis, but perhaps I need another listen to update my memory.

The most significant crime has to be a song about lice in which the parasites are recommended as a snack for children when served in a sandwich. "Lice" makes the second act song about a stove a minor misdemeanour by comparison, and there seemed to be significant and increasing benefits to only hearing Kristina in Swedish - my only previous experience of the piece.

There is no argument that a story of such misery and hardship needs its lighter moments and the number "American Man" in which the women sing disbelievingly of a new acquaintance who irons his own shirts and cleans the house is a welcome spot of fun, but did their lives really not have any bright moments to put into song apart from this?

The big screen that dominated the backdrop to the orchestra displayed a range of scene-setting images as well as background information that went some way to explaining the religious and historical context. It also provided welcome surtitles to supplement the blurry diction of the otherwise well sung ensemble but such provision was not extended to the principals although there would have been some profit here too.

Kevin Oderkirk plays Robert, Karl Oskar's younger brother, and his big number "Gold Can Turn to Sand" had many on their feet for the second time, the first standing ovation marking the entrance of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus into the auditorium.

Chart-topping tenor Russell Wilson is an emotionally powerful and determined Karl Oskar, and Louise Pitre whose characterisation is the strongest and the most engaging for being so, has the role of Ulrika the mettlesome village whore.

Kristina comes across as rather passive and timorous. She is more faint-heart than frontierswoman and until Helen Sjöholm's breathtakingly intense rendition of "You Have to be There", there was clearly something missing. Troubled and ill again after a miscarriage, Kristina has a crisis of faith and questions the existence of God. Sjöholm's delivery here is explosive and this time most of the audience was on its feet in recognition of a performance the force of which will be felt by many for some time to come.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti