In a winter that sees Melbourne without one major musical production, thank God for The Production Company, which has given us an absolute gem with its current production of the 1980’s musical Chess.
With lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (ABBA), Chess has had a troubled history. Although it was a major hit on the West End, running for almost three years, the show failed to make its mark on Broadway, closing after only 68 performances. Attempts at a professional Australian production also failed. While boasting some fantastic songs (One Night in Bangkok, Anthem, I Know Him So Well), Chess has always been burdened by an incredibly convoluted plot.
With the approval of Tim Rice, Gale Edwards and her talented support team have manipulated the plot, simplifying it and making it accessible to a 2012 audience. In this pared back version, we see that the show is about far more than a game of chess. We understand the frailties and frustrations of the leading players and we become aware of the political machinations which turn them into pawns in the greater world game.
Australia is very lucky to have a director of the calibre of Gale Edwards and she brings all of her vast talent to bear on this production. Her clever and innovative direction is evident throughout the production. A memorable example is the stunning pas de deux of the first chess match with its undertones of sexual attraction and macho bravado. And the opening of Act Two is a stunner, bringing all the production elements together in the wonderful One Night in Bangkok. With little set to work with she keeps the action moving at a cracking, exciting pace. She obviously demands the best and everyone associated with this production has risen to the occasion. Edwards has assembled a stellar cast, all of whom make their own mark on this show.
Silvie Paladino is a standout, bringing dignity and passion to the role of Florence Vassy. Her beautifully modulated voice is well suited to this style of show and she has the audience in the palm of her hand with her moving ballads and her soaring top notes.
As the Russian Grandmaster, Anatoly Sergievsky, Simon Gleeson might have attempted more of a Russian accent but hey! - Who cares? Gleeson has a voice like liquid velvet and his stunning rendition of Anthem is one of the highlights in a night of highlights. His duets with Paladino are sublime.
Martin Crewes tackles what is probably the most difficult role in the show, that of American Grandmaster Frederick Trumper. Trumper is an arrogant and unlikeable character. Vocally, he spends most of the show belting out rock numbers. It isn’t until late in Act Two, when he performs Pity the Child, that we see the fragility behind the brittle exterior and Crewes is able to show off his considerable vocal range.
Bare-chested beneath an open dinner jacket and with killer vocals, Michael Falzon turns the normally boring role of The Arbiter into a strutting, sexy rock star.
The role of Svetlana Sergievsky is played by Alinta Chidzey. This is another difficult role as the character, although spoken about throughout the show, does not appear until half way through Act Two. Chidzey’s voice is a little ‘poppy’ for my liking and I wonder if she is a little too young for the role. Having said that, she joins with Paladino to give us a lovely and very moving rendition of I Know Him So Well.
With his sinister on-stage presence and impressive bass-baritone voice, Mark Dickinson gives an excellent well-grounded performance as Alexander Molokov, Head of the Russian Delegation.
Rounding out the leads is Bert Labonte as Walter de Courcey, Head of the American Delegation. While Labonte might lack the vocal agility of his fellow leads, he has a confident, easy presence which is always a pleasure to watch.
The leading players are well supported by the large ensemble. Tight harmonies, slick choreography and clever direction ensure that these talented performers are a meaningful part of the main game. It is a particular pleasure to see well-known Theatre People friends Cameron Thomas and Rosa McCarty on stage.
All of these wonderful performances are backed up by exceptional production values.
From the thrilling vocals of the leading players to the tight harmonies of the ensemble, Musical Director David Piper gives his audience an absolute treat. Piper also leads the excellent 25 piece Orchestra Victoria which remains onstage throughout the show, flanking the chess board but never pulling focus.
Choreography is often a victim of the time constraints of a Production Company show. Veteran choreographer Tony Bartuccio has overcome this by giving the bulk of the dancing to four male and two female leading dancers. The more simple choreography required of the ensemble is precise and effective.
Shaun Gurton’s deceptively simple set consists of a raked chess board, edged in fluorescent lighting and backed by four panels chequered in black and white. On occasions, these panels become stylised US and Russian flags. A star cloth is used to great effect for the night scenes. And that’s it. It is left to the ingenuity of the direction, costuming and lighting, and to the often undervalued imagination of the audience, to follow the many scene changes.
Krystal Giddings’ quirky costuming turns the ensemble into an eclectic collection of black and white chess pieces. The leading men are given smart suits, elegant casual wear and lots of leather, also in black and white. Clever additions to the costumes help place the action. The only disappointment for me is Silvie Paladino’s costuming which, by comparison, is rather boring and occasionally unflattering.
In a sung-through show, sound is like a lead player. If we can’t understand the words of the songs, we can’t follow the plot. And, with a complicated plot such as this one, it becomes even more important. With the very occasional exception of a slight muddiness in the ensemble numbers, System Sound and their associates have delivered clear and precise sound which adds enormously to this production.
Lighting designers Paul Jackson and Robert Cuddon have contributed smart, effective but unobtrusive lighting which complements the set and the many scene changes.
This is an exceptional production and the opening night audience showed its appreciation with a well-deserved standing ovation. I urge you all to see it during its all-too-short season.
Photos: Jeff Busby