A Love Letter to Unoriginality – Musical Review
The 1920s. Helsinki. Live singing. Murder.
These are four of my favourite things – all of which and more The Alexander Theatre offers Finnish musical devotees with their 2019 production “Iloisten Sielujen Hotelli” (Hotel of Happy Souls). The murder musical is based on the detective novel series “Björk” written by Virpi Hämeen-Anttila, who has also composed the script for the musical. The story takes place in the 1920s Helsinki, at the heart of kieltolaki, that is, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Axel Björk, a rip-off Sherlock Holmes straight out of the rough streets of Kallio, helps solve crimes in Helsinki while the police are overworked due to the prohibition. As a subplot, Mr. Björk has a confusing, unresolved crush on his second cousin, Lisbet, whose attention is briefly caught by another courter.
Being both a huge history and musical nerd who is in love with the Finnish capital city, I couldn’t contain my excitement when I first heard of the upcoming musical performance that combines just about everything dear to me. To be honest, it is never a good thing to have high expectations when walking into the theatre, and as expected, the height of mine was not completely met by the spectacle. However, paradoxically, the performance was both thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining and painfully sunk in humdrum mediocrity. Let’s dig in to understand why.
The music was composed by Jukka Nykänen and performed with conductor Marko Hilpo in the lead. The pieces were all very musical-like, including a lead theme present both at the beginning and the end, one piece that was more of a raunchy, exuberant nature – think “The Master of the House” of Les Misérables –, one touching ballad, and of course, a big, emotional ending number. The peaks of the pieces could be foreseen from miles away; there were no surprises composition-wise. Singing was mostly fine, although with somewhat shy and lethargic belting, and no one particularly dazzled or grossly dissatisfied. A notable comedic moment was Mr. Björk’s (played by Joel Mäkinen) fake piano playing – there was so little effort and accuracy in the pretend-play that the audience couldn’t help but laugh. Not completely in a positive manner. The skills of the actual pianist deserve to be applauded, however.
The character of Axel Björk is a stubborn lone wolf and a morphine addict who doesn’t perform too well socially and risks his own safety to solve crimes on a freelance basis. Remind you of anyone? Mr. Björk is a Helsinkian shadow of Sherlock Holmes, with a considerably lower IQ and only a somewhat better success in the social circles – even if he still just doesn’t get women. His cousin Lisbet is a hollow representation of the prejudiced, in this case Swedish-speaking, upper middle class, and Frans Valkama is but a cheap Dr. Watson, with a tad rougher family history and home district. The only interesting character is Ida, a university student who is passionate about the rights of women; a theme that is, however, irrelevant to the rest of the plot and that unnecessarily underlines this one part of history. It would have been more interesting regarding the whole of the plot if the focus lay more heavily on the prohibition and the class differences of the 1920s Helsinki.
Admittedly, the plot of a musical is normally not the one to look forward to or to expect great things of – the compositions and the singing abilities of the actors are both way more important parts of the musical puzzle. However, when leads are left unfinished and subplots are but confusing loose ends, the poor plot becomes a distraction instead of the acceptably weak link of a musical show. The plot of “Iloisten Sielujen Hotelli” leaves a lot to be desired – while, contradictorily, in its looseness and uninterestingness the storyline allows for a no-pressure, “this is fine” kind of an experience for the audience. It was, in fact, just fine.
One of the best parts of the whole two-hour show is the confrontation of the murderer. The smart lighting tricks and horror movie-like musical effects create an entertaining, electrifying collage of a battle. The scene seems to say in itself that what is happening is not unlike anything else we have seen before, both in the theatre and on the screen, and this allusion is a much-needed confession of ordinariness. Even if the plot, the characters, the scenes seem like reflections of what we have already seen, the musical proudly gives in to this and says, “Even if we’re doing nothing new, the show can still be a worthy and enjoyable experience”. Therefore, this cheaper, dumber version of Mr. Holmes and his morphine-induced adventures can be deemed thoroughly mediocre and yet most amusing, smart, and completely delightful – “Iloisten Sielujen Hotelli” is a love letter to unoriginality.