The Official Dutch Production

First, the cast:
I was, of course, thrilled at the chance to see Douwes in this role; additionally, I've thought for at least a year now that Jeroen Phaff would make a good Franz Joseph (why is it that the only people I'd be interested in seeing in that role are also ones I feel would be wasted in it? Ah well...). I had not considered Stanley Burleson for Death, but once his casting was announced, I realised it was a very good idea.

Thanks to the efforts of several lovely people (primarily Kimberley and Liselotte) I was able to get tickets to three of the final previews and the first public performance after opening night, quite good seats. Which of course meant that my trip to Vienna was expanded to include the Netherlands as well. All four times, I had the regular cast for those roles that the Circustheater lists; I didn't notice any different faces from night to night in the more minor roles, so I'm assuming I got the full cast. No idea who played the children, as there aren't any names in the program.

Overall, I was very pleased with the production and cast. Physically, it's often quite beautiful--more elaborate sets than I would prefer for this show, but more realistic than the very abstract and dark sets and lighting in Vienna, so I liked it more. The "spectacle" aspects didn't seem quite as gratuitous. And Yan Tax's costumes were generally gorgeous. The cast fulfilled my expectations, for the most part. Pia Douwes sounds better than she ever has, as all the people I know who've heard the Dutch CD have commented, and is even more impressive live. I've heard that the early previews weren't very coherent, and that she alone carried the show, and I can easily believe it. Not only does she sound great, but her acting, especially her physicality, was wonderful. You could practically follow what happened to Elisabeth just by watching the way Douwes moved; seeing her go from the free, loose, confident girl of the early scenes to the closed-off, stiff, restricted, defeated woman is quite moving. And since proper use of physicality is one of the things I look for in an actor, I enjoyed her performance tremendously. In addition, Stanley Burleson was a marvellous Death; he had nothing in common with the characterisation from the original Vienna production, but worked for me just as well, in a rather different way. This Dood was more sinister, less "supernatural" (save for the occasional very effective moment), in some ways more human. He quite frequently seemed completely lost, experiencing emotions which he had never even considered might one day apply to him. And though I can't think of a better word to describe him than "sinister", he never lapsed into being evil, which is something I'm very grateful for. Yet...with Burleson's performance, there's never any doubt in the audience's mind that the deaths of Elisabeth's children occur solely as vengeance, a means of paying her back for her rejections of him.

My other favourite performance in this cast is one that a lot of people probably won't understand. Jeroen Phaff had what in my opinion is probably the toughest job in this show: trying to make something worthwhile out of a character as boring and underdeveloped as Franz Joseph. I think he succeeded as much as is possible, considering the restraints of not just the show but the historical Franz Joseph's apparent personality (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, much of what I liked in his performance was in the details of his facial expressions, which will be lost on people beyond the first 12 rows. I will freely admit, however, that part of my respect for his acting in this role may well stem from the fact that a year earlier I had seen him as Krolock in Tanz der Vampire, and would never have recognised him--they are such completely different characters, and he gave completely different performances as appropriate. And versatility is another thing I admire in a performer; hence my high opinion of his Franz Joseph.

Then there are the other principles, none of whom I was overjoyed with, but none of whom I absolutely hated. In fact, I have rather mixed feelings about most of them, Wim van den Driessche's Lucheni in particular. I had heard a lot of negative opinions before seeing the show myself, so the first night I thought "actually, he's not that bad". Each of the remaining nights, however, I found him more and more annoying--and while some of that may just be because I'm used to certain lines being read one way, and he does them quite differently, I don't think that explains everything. He yelled too much for my tastes, at times when I prefer a more subtle delivery, for instance. His voice didn't really do anything for me either. Yet he did have a few nice moments here and there.... My next-least-favourite performance among the principles was Addo Kruizinga as Rudolf. I was pleasantly surprised, in that I didn't dislike him as much as I expected to based on the recordings I'd heard of him in other roles, but since Rudolf is my favourite member of this family, and has two of my favourite songs in the show, I would've liked to see someone else in the role. Still, Kruizinga's voice sounded much better in my opinion than as der Tod on the live Vienna CD, which was my main concern. His acting might have been considered fine, except for the fact that, based on what people who've seen him in other roles have said, he was much the same as ever. Specifically, he can't move; everything was very awkward, and I can't recall his ever taking more than about two steps in a row. Like I said, I'm told that he's like this in every role, so it can't be dismissed as an acting choice (at least, not a good one). On the other hand, Doris Baaten was just fine as Sophie, though there's not really a whole lot one can say about that role.

What most people are probably more interested in about this production is the addition of a few new scenes. There are several places where a line or two were added, but I'll just concentrate on the more substantial changes.

The Proloog was edited considerably, but the first significant change in my opinion was Zwarte prins (the Wie Du reprise after Sisi falls from her trapeze). It's much longer than it was in Vienna, and is sung directly to de Dood. She wakes up as he's about to kiss her, so he begins to leave--but she calls after him, not wanting him to go. From what I remember of the lyrics, she says that although she knows that he's Death, she's not afraid of him; in his arms she felt very free, and she wants to go flying with him like a black bird....

The first completely new scene, and new melody, was inserted between Zoals je wilt en hoopt (So wie man denkt, so kommt es nie) and Niets weegt zwar (Nichts ist schwer). The newly-engaged Sisi and Franz Joseph are...not quite playing, but almost. He actually even laughs! And she happily sings about how well they get along together, and how they are free, without boundaries. That's what prompts Franz Joseph to sober up and inform her that things won't really be that relaxed once they're married. It's not a long segment, but sweet, and provides a much-needed bridge between the two older scenes. The music is light, airy, almost bubbly (though not too much so).

Though not a new song, the Mama, waar ben je? (Mama, wo bist du?) that we're familiar with from Vienna has been moved to act one, just before Elisabeth, doe open liefste (Elisabeth, mach auf mein Engel). The song is reprised in its entirety in act two, right after Kitsch! (there is no Éljen, though it's listed in the program), with a slightly older child and new lyrics. This time, young Rudolf is complaining that he wants to be free, too--just like his mother--but due to protocol, is kept from doing anything as simple as playing with friends. I think it's nice that something sets up the older Rudolf's insistence that he and Elisabeth are very much alike.

The second completely new scene falls after De laatste kans (Die letzte Chance). In it, Franz Joseph confronts his ailing mother and accuses her of playing games with his marriage. She blames Elisabeth; he tells her that no matter what she does, he's standing by his wife. The new, rather melancholy, melody begins after Franz Joseph has turned away from Sophie; she mourns the loss of her son.

The adult Rudolf now makes his first appearance in Rusteloze jaren (Rastlose Jahre); the "hunt" portion of the song has been replaced with a scene between him and his father. Franz Joseph tells him to stop writing things against the government; at first Rudolf tries to deny doing so, then he grows upset that the Emperor would have his own son spied on. They argue--Rudolf asserts that he means everything he wrote, and that his mother agrees with him. Franz Joseph insists he can't have his heir undermining the authority of his reign, and he refuses to listen to accusations of his wife's sympathising with his political enemies.

Rudolf's second new scene comes just after Er valt een zwarte schaduw (Die Schatten werden länger); in another reworking of Melk and De laatste dans, several Hungarian leaders approach him with plans to break away from the empire, with Rudolf as the new King of Hungary. At first he protests that what they're suggesting would be high treason, but de Dood returns and convinces him to sign the document. He finally agrees, at which point the meeting is discovered; de Dood's minions lead Franz Joseph, Count Grünne, and Archbishop Rauscher to the site, where they discover that the rumour of the Crown Prince's treason was true.

In all, I think the new scenes (and some of the new lines inserted elsewhere) are an improvement. In general, they provide some opportunities for much-needed character development for Franz Joseph and Rudolf; considering how desperately these roles needed development, that can only be a good thing. And the two new melodies are pleasant, though neither jumps out and grabs you.

All in all, a highly recommended production--especially with the original cast. I saw the show a couple more times a year later, and while naturally there were some changes in the performances of Douwes, Burleson, and Phaff (what's the point of live theatre if the actors' portrayals never evolve?), some of the other cast members failed to impress. Van den Driessche had, like JP Dougherty of the US Les Mis tour, had only grown still less subtle and more annoying over time; I also seemed to have less patience with Kruizinga than previously. The understudy I saw for Sophie was unimpressive; Benno Hoogveld as Franz Joseph was just utterly blah (which is a problem that seems to afflict most FJs, and not without cause). I also saw an early performance of Maaike Widdershoven, Douwes' replacement, and was thoroughly unimpressed. I would be willing to see her in some other show, in a role more suited to her, but she was unable to pull of Elisabeth. She sounded too old in the beginning of the show, and was far too young--in voice, in looks, in physicality--the rest of the time. Vocally, she was for the most part strong, but lacking in subtlety or emotion; very "hey, look at me, I'm standing here in this spotlight belting out a song! Go, me!" Additionally, she never seemed spontaneous or emotional; all her movements, including facial expressions, seemed to be very thought out. "Okay, now I'm upset. Next I cross over there. Now I hold my hand like so." Not the kind of performance I can really enjoy.

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