Kristina – Royal Albert Hall

Before Mamma Mia became a global smash, another musical penned by ABBA’s Bjorn and Benny was winning fans.

Kristina från Duvemåla started life in 1995, becoming a huge Scandinavian hit. In the intervening years the show also gained a large loyal following of English fans who have, until now, had to console themselves with the Swedish language CDs. Not anymore however.

Following three sell out concerts in New York last year, we now have the European premiere of the new English version of Kristina. Staged in concert format ahead of a hoped for stage version.

A tale of 19th Century emigrants from Sweden to Minnesota is far removed from the Greek Isles of Mama Mia and for those expecting a similar score there may be a shock. Listen carefully however and the ABBA trademark sound is here. Powerful ballads, intricate harmonies and strong female roles all feature strongly.

This concert staging lets the music stand out, and stand out it does. From the opening bars of the overture to the final notes of the emotional climax, Kristina thrills.

Conductor Paul Gemignani extracts every nuance from the excellent symphony orchestra and choir, overcoming initial sound issues in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall.

Taking centre stage are soloists Russell Watson, Louise Pitre , Kevin Odekirk and the original Kristina herself, Helen Sjöholm. In perhaps an unpopular view for his legions of fans, it is Watson who is the weakest link of the four. While impressive in vocal power and range, some diction issues lost many of his lyrics. No such problems from an on-form Oderkirk who was note perfect, with his rendition of Gold Turns into Sand receiving the first ovation of the evening.

The undoubted star of the evening however has to be Helen Sjöholm. Having played Kristina throughout the musicals history may give her an unfair advantage but she knows exactly what stops to pull out to deliver the role. Her heart-felt rendition of You Have to Be Here was rewarded with an extensive ovation.

There has been much speculation that this concert is a precursor to the anticipated English stage version. There may still be a bit of work to do before that however – some numbers could benefit from shortening and some (a song about lice) could be cut entirely without loss, but given the right director and staging this could be the next epic musical.

Despite the appeal of a stage version, in many ways this show benefits from the full symphonic treatment, and as such is a perfect subject for this concert format. While some of the audience at the Royal Albert Hall may have been meeting Kristina for the first time, the extended ovation showed that all had fallen in love with her.

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