With 1999 international musical comedy juggernaut “Mamma Mia!” entering its second decade, Swedish duo Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus seem to be making an effort to revitalize their earlier theatrical efforts. The much-revised “Chess,” which folded after eight weeks on Broadway in 1986, recently returned on DVD and is sparking revival rumors; now New York concertgoers get to hear the former Abba frontmen’s 1995 musical epic “Kristina.” The show was a major hit in Sweden, but one suspects its local fate will echo that of “Chess” rather than that of “Mamma Mia!”
“Kristina” is derived from Vilhelm Moberg’s 1949 novel “The Emigrant” and its three sequels (also the source for the 1971 movie starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann). Title character is a small-town girl who marries Karl Oskar; the couple emigrate to Minnesota, where they undergo numerous hardships while forging a new life in the New World. Tale has great resonance in Sweden, but lack of interest hereabouts could doom future prospects. Moberg’s series adds up to some 1,800 pages, and many in the restless Carnegie Hall audience may have felt they were sitting through all of them. Trimmed concert version approached the three-hour mark, making one wonder how long the uncut piece runs.
Major asset is Andersson’s music, which on first hearing is more impressive than “Chess.” Trouble is, there’s way too much of it — song after song after endless song. The program lists 36 numbers, too many of which sound alike. But many sound good, with music director Paul Gemignani and his 51-piece American Theater Orchestra doing a wonderful job (especially noticeable in the instrumental interludes). Gemignani seems to be casually waving his baton, but the results — especially given what must have been limited rehearsal — are impressive. So are the orchestrations, from a committee of 11.
Lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (of “Les Miserables”) has the thankless task of translating the lyrics. Sound quality was so problematic on the first of the Carnegie concert’s two-night run that many words were lost, but this reviewer thinks he heard someone sing “Though I sleep on dung/I must hold my tongue,” as well as a big production number about “Lice” — suggesting you can put them in a sandwich and feed it to the kids; it tastes like toffee.
Swedish singer Helen Sjoholm re-creates the title role; she has played it many times and clearly knows how to hit all the bases. Russell Watson, an ex-factory worker turned “the People’s Tenor” — with more than 6 million albums sold — offers strong support in the role of hubby Karl Oskar.
Louise Pitre (the title Mamma in the original Broadway cast of “Mamma Mia!”) was an audience favorite as Ulrika, the so-called happy whore. Most impressive of the quartet is relatively unknown Kevin Odekirk as Karl Oskar’s brother Robert, who rocked the house with his bitter lament “Gold Can Turn to Sand.” The rest of the characters were pulled from the ensemble, with comic relief provided by Walter Charles (as a Midwest preacher) and character lady Joy Hermalyn.
Peaks amidst the three hours were many, including Pitre’s “Never”; Watson’s “In the Dead of Darkness”; musical comedy number “American Man” (featuring Hermalyn and Charles); the Sjoholm/Pitre duet “Miracle of God”; and the leading lady’s “You Have to Be There,” which earned Sjoholm a standing ovation.
But the final half-hour of the piece concerns itself with Kristina being warned, after eight children and a miscarriage, that she must no longer lie with her husband. She convinces him nevertheless to throw caution to the winds, as it were, with inevitable results. They sing and sing and sing about it, yes, with suitably serious music; but U.S. audiences are likely to find this predicament — and Kristina’s epic tale — less than gripping.