Chess The Musical has always remained a mystery to me and, until I saw OSMaD’s latest offering, I wasn’t sure exactly why. Written and produced in the 80s, the show takes us back one decade earlier than that to the late 70s, as we follow the story of rivalling chess masters and their quest for both the world title and the girl.
Chess has been fraught with difficulties since its inception. After a rocky start, it was ultimately well received in London with hit pop singles, ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’ soaring to the top of the charts. The same cannot be said for its New York run on Broadway. The common difficulties since seem to have included the mixture of musical genres, the disconnect between the music and lyrics, the pace and context of the story and the undefined themes of the show. As a result, this show has become very difficult to produce and audiences tend to fall into two categories; people who love it and people who don’t.
The book and lyrics of this mystifying tribute to the game of black and white were conceptualised and written by Tim Rice, most notable for his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on hit musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Evita (1978) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (1968). With a score by the two Bs from ABBA, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the music has a Euro-pop overtone and is significantly influenced by rock music of the late 70s and early 80s.
After previewing OSMaD’s production, the musical does seem as if it’s cobbled together; not one flowing piece, but many little pieces that perhaps once belonged to different shows. This leads me to the conclusion that the show itself doesn’t really know what it is or what it’s trying to be. This is proven further by writer, Tim Rice’s comment in the foreword of the show, permitting creatives to re-order the songs and scenes as they see fit. As you can imagine, if the musical itself is confused, so too must be the audience.
In the case of this production, the direction didn’t quite translate the obscurity of the show to its modern audience, who may not be familiar with the work or the historical context in which the story is set. As a result, the storytelling lagged and the plot seemed to be moving faster than the actors could tell it.
Entering the Geoffrey McComas Theatre, the stage was set. The precisely painted floorboards reflected the Chess logo, while images were projected across three screens, carefully suspended above the onstage band. With few set transitions and a dependence on projections to set the scene, the success of this show relied heavily on flawless performances from the principal cast.
It demands vocal skill above all else. The notes need to be 100% precise, otherwise the very intricate melodies just don’t carry. Much like Les Miserables, Chess is sung-through and it’s a difficult score, which is why the music needs to be so crystalline and precise. With this in mind, the diction was lacking so the storytelling suffered in parts. This and the minimal set led me to believe that this production may have been better performed in concert, with finer attention to the details of the score.
Without much warning, the opening number launched us back in time to the Renaissance era to explain the origins of the game, only to swiftly drag us back to the 1970s by our heels. Needless to say, it takes a while for the audience to find their feet and begin following along.
The Arbiter, strangely clad in neon colour and disco heels, certainly stood out against the pale pastels and sensible shoes of the principal cast and presented with an Australian accent, unique from his fellow players who attempted accents authentic to their characters’ origin. He welcomed the audience to each chess tournament within the show: a gesture we would become very used to. I can only assume that this character is intended to break the fourth wall, almost as a narrator but, without much useful information to add to the story, I struggled to comprehend the purpose of the Arbiter’s role.
3An impressive vocal performance came through from Dublin-born, Owen Clarke, who played Russian chess master Anatoly Sergievsky but the show was stolen by Emily McKenzie as Florence Vassy, whose performance was natural and consistent across every element of performance. The band was also a highlight of this production and played expertly underneath the chirping ensemble.
Glenn Bardwell and his sound team seemed to still be settling into the show, with audible backstage chatter featuring in one of the numbers and heavy breathing punctuating the more powerful songs.
While this production was not for me, as previously noted, the show itself is almost always polarising, so I congratulate OSMaD for taking on such challenging material.