Rehearsal Roundup: 2014 Semifinal 1

The show is starting to come together. Semifinal delegations have had two rounds of rehearsal in the hall; we fans have had two looks at their plans.  In an abbreviated schedule, all of the acts in the first Semifinal had their second rehearsals yesterday. The folks in Semi 2 have their second rehearsals today; more about that in another post. Based on rehearsal clips posted on YouTube and reports from the press room, here’s how we’re starting to piece together the first Semifinal.

Armenia has gone for the classy ballad staging. It’s a solo turn with a spotlight cage for lighting, and a starscape background that grows increasingly stormy as the song grows in intensity. In the second rehearsal, Aram MP3 was decked out in a grey suit with long coat and a black mock turtleneck.  The whole package has a utilitarian feel, so it really comes down to the song, the way it builds and Aram’s vocal. The shine is off somewhat with the fans, but we attribute this change of heart to what we said in our initial review – that the song has immediate impact but doesn’t hold up with multiple listens. It could still be our next winner, but the front runner status doesn’t feel as secure these days.

Latvia has gone for a youthful hipster look, but its impact is virtually unchanged from their national final. They still reek amateur.  Success for Latvia rests on whether they can charm audiences with the sunniness of their song and their rawness as performers. It was always going to be tough lift, and yesterday some rumors emerged of internal strife within Aarzemnieki, that the group was barely speaking to each other. If true, this is dire news indeed for Latvia. For this group to have a prayer of qualifying, their performance has to fill the audience with joy.  And to do that, they first need to radiate joy in singing with each other.

Estonia’s staging follows the dance/rehearsal room concept in their music video, seemingly taking place in room with blue panels and exposed brick walls. It doesn’t feel particularly glamorous, but Tanja is looking and sounding great.

Fans wanting to peg alternative winners have been looking at Sweden. “Undo” has been adapted pretty much wholesale from Melodifestivalen. What could be kept has been kept, what had to be changed has been changed.  Sanna is using a starry backdrop and a similar lighting cage motif as Aram MP3, and word is we’ll see a dress (though hopefully not the short rhinestoned little black dress from the 2nd rehearsal) instead of her signature pantsuit. It’s all done very well, with perfectly professional decision making throughout. And it’s all very clinical, without heart.

Iceland has solved a lot of the problems it had at their national final. They’ve gone for an English translation which better communicates the song’s positive message. They continue to be decked out in their Wiggles-style color coordinated outfits (dress suits or trackies to be determined — and they also have color coordinated bathrobes they’ve been wearing off stage). Their presentation is bright and colorful, and the backdrop has lots of stackable shapes. The whole thing reads children’s band, and their youthful exuberance is endearing. I love what Iceland is doing here, and I think it’ll play in the arena. This is an act that is on the qualification bubble. They’ve given themselves a sporting chance.

Albania is a mess. Recall at Festivali there was a huge orchestration guitar-driven intro and interlude at the bridge. Those, thankfully, are long gone, but the Albanian lyrics have been replaced with godawful English lyrics. For the staging, they’ve stuck poor Hersi on a huge plinth, rising above dry ice and Maleficent’s briar patch. Albania has exactly one thing going for them: Hersi’s fantastic voice.

It’s a year where a vote for Russia probably means more than whether one likes the song and singer.  In that climate, Russia has brought together a songwriter, team of lyricists, production designer, and artists all with prior Eurovision pedigrees. It had to come together fast, but their effort is evident. Production-wise, from the ponytails to the teeter-totter to the rising sun, they give us lots of camera-ready moments. The song comes off as only somewhat insincere — as opposed to totally insincere — which is in itself an achievement.

When putting together a production team, famed Broadway director George Abbott was known to bring in a mix of experienced pros and one or two promising upstarts. He felt that this mixture of energy, fresh ideas, and experience was helpful in striking the right collaborative balance, as opposed to conventional wisdom which relied entirely on partnering with those who had the proven track record. I’ve been thinking about that in regards to Russia this year. They’ve achieved what they set out to do, but it feels stale. But how strong is the rest of the field? And to what extent will politics play a role? Russia’s qualification prospects are a puzzle this year.

Azerbaijan has done just about everything they can to take their intimate cabaret song and scale it up for an arena and a large television audience. Dilara’s fire-inspired dress is stunning. There’s a trapeze artist for added visual interest, and Dilara interacts with her just enough for the audience to understand that the trapeze artist is a projection of herself. It’s all very lovely and very professional.  And I have been on record from the start about how much I enjoy this song. Here’s my beef: the execution is new, but we’ve seen all these elements before from Azerbaijan. The torch song and dress are similar to 2012’s “When the Music Dies.” The general concept of artist and acrobat avatar are similar to 2013’s “Hold Me.” And we already know Azerbaijan is the land of fire. Everything here is done well and I enjoy it, but I’m starting to wonder if they have any other ideas they can bring to the table.

A new arrangement, a new look, a new concept, Ukraine has undergone a complete transformation. The centerpiece is a giant hamster wheel, and it’s fab. Mariya’s styling has cleaned up and she’s coming into her own. In rehearsals Mariya has been hitting the big notes but she’s sloppy with the little ones; it’s a troubling detail unlikely to be missed by juries.  Regardless, Ukraine has taken a mediocre national final effort and replaced it with a package that features lots of movement and compelling visuals.

Belgium has simply exported its national final staging to Copenhagen. Axel is still in the tuxedo, and his “mother” still does her ghostly interpretive dance in the shadows. He’s still singing great, and the song’s lyrics are still as divisive as ever. Ladies and gentlemen, your Marmite entry for Semifinal 1.

Moldova has a way of pulling out the qualification against all odds, but this year the odds are stacked against them. “Wild Soul” can best be described as bombastic, and Cristina Scarlat is selling it as best she can. (Whoo boy is she trying). It’s all reading Nina Badric to me, and that’s not a positive omen.

“Maybe”? Erm, no. San Marino could take a lesson from Russia or Ukraine in how to develop a presentation over the full 3 minutes. It starts off promising, with Valentina perched on a plinth with a draped fabric that makes her look like Venus on the half shell. But for the rest of the song she simply stands there and sings very nicely. I think a wind machine might be in there somewhere. People, where’s the fun in that? An old fashioned, static staging of an old fashioned song.

Portugal has gone for the Stella Mwangi staging: colorful, aimless movement, distracting background. They also threw in some flags and big drums for good measure. Some fans are enjoying its playful bonhomie, but in our opinion Portugal missed an opportunity. How much more fun would this entry have been with danceable choreography a la Lucia Perez, Alyona Lanskaya, or, indeed, Stella Mwangi?

The Netherlands’ prospects have increased greatly during rehearsal week. They’re the class act of this Semi – a simple country tune, well performed and with attractive visuals. Factor in a favorable draw in a Semi where only 6 songs won’t make it, and Netherlands is in with a fighting chance to qualify.

Can’t say the same for Montenegro. Sadly, Montenegro has taken a great song and overthought everything. Sergej has had trouble finding his inner diva and isn’t coming across as a compelling front man. They’ve shoehorned an ice skater onto the stage for no apparent reason, and bafflingly, replaced that stunning cinematography from the music video with a static image of the Tree of Souls from Avatar. The abrupt ending is still there, too. This Balkan ballad is still in with a chance to qualify, and going into rehearsals I thought they were a dead cert. Now, I’m not so sure.

The semifinal wraps up with Hungary. Hungary has edited its staging from the national final, to increased effect. The action focuses on András and 2 dancers, who collectively tell the song’s story. The most important thing to note about the staging is that they’ve gotten the tone right – so important, and so difficult, for this song.  Hungary has solidified its standing as one of the strongest songs in this year’s contest.