Rating: 4 stars
With book and lyrics by Tim Rice, and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, Chess was first released as a concept album in 1984 and followed with a European concert tour before making its West End debut in 1986. The musical has had a somewhat chequered past, with great success on the West End, but a short-lived season on Broadway in a very different production to the original. In the decades that followed, Chess has been significantly tweaked and changed, often at the mercy of each new production team, and needless to say, each production of Chess brings yet another fresh and new look at this intriguing and complex musical of the Cold War era, set against the backdrop of a World Chess rivalry between the USSR and the USA.
I admit I’m a fan of Chess (and indeed Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) and have seen numerous productions. Honestly, I’d be just as happy with Florence belting out ‘The Winner Takes it All’ as the closing number instead of a rendition of ‘Anthem’.
What I love about Chess, besides the stunning musical score, is the complexity of the story line and the analogies that play out. It evokes memories of the Cold War era when any event between America and Russia – whether a sporting event or a chess tournament – was presented as battle between two great superpowers with political undertones always at play. Yet, beyond the Cold War era, what remains are analogies that are still relevant today.
However, I also know that the complex story is a lot to absorb in your first viewing, unless the story-telling is very clear. This latest production by Storeyboard Entertainment, under the direction of Tyran Parke is a somewhat scaled back concert presentation and this centres the focus of attention on the music. This is at the detriment of the story-telling at times, with very few references to assist first time audience goers with any sense of time or location. Although massive chess pieces were moved around the staging to demonstrate these changes, it was not necessarily easy to follow.
Selecting a diverse cast of rock and opera performers, in addition to some experienced musical theatre stars ensured a unique take on this rarely presented musical, and made the music the real hero of this production. Under the musical direction of David Spicer, this robust and complex score is given the full respect it deserves with a large orchestra producing an exquisite sound that just can’t be reproduced from a cast recording. It’s worth a ticket just for this alone.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte brought a sexy, rock-chick vibe to her portrayal of Florence Vassy and provided an interesting contrast to the operatically trained Alexander Lewis in the role of Anatoly Sergievsky. Bassingthwaighte did well to manoeuvre the raked stage in a pair of stilettos whilst passionately belting out a tune at the top of her vocal range without falling over.
Mark Furze took on the role of the Frederick Trumper, bringing a confident rockstar feel to this Chess Champion.
Paulini emerged on the stage looking every bit the pop diva and delivered a powerful performance of ‘Someone Else’s Story’, which presented a rather confident version of Svetlana – who perhaps is the character with the most to lose but ultimately is the final winner.
Paulini’s duet with Bassingthwaighte in ‘I Know Him So Well’ was indeed a highlight for the appreciative audience.
Rob Mills oozed charisma from the moment he stepped on the stage as Walter De Courcey. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i was stunning in the role of Ivan Molokov.
And rounding out the principal cast, Brittanie Shipway brought a confident sexiness to the role of the Arbiter.
The principal cast were supported by a a large choir and a strong and experienced ensemble group who skillfully mastered the slick choreography by Freya List.
Lighting design by Gavan Swift was effective to create mood.
With any production of Chess it is expected to see a lot of black and white, but there was little symbolism in the choice of colours. While the addition of red throughout the costuming added a bold colour pop, it is a colour usually associated as being connected to the Soviet Union, but it was used through various members of the cast without any rationale and potentially making it harder for audiences to identify just who belonged to each side. Although, I did like the fact Anatoly’s red tie remained through the second act.
There were a few missed microphone cues on the night of the review, but this should improve with subsequent performances.
The opportunity to see a professional production of Chess The Musical, with this powerhouse of stars is one not to be missed. The Melbourne season sold out well ahead of the short season, packing out the largest of Melbourne’s East End theatres – whether this was for the rare opportunity to see this musical, the big names in the cast or a combination of both, Storeyboard Entertainment should be congratulated for bringing a rarely presented musical to Australian audiences.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
CHESS THE MUSICAL
Her Majesty’s Theatre
Thursday 27 May 7:30pm
Friday 28 May 2021, 7:30pm
Saturday 29 May, 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Co-produced by Perth Symphony Orchestra and StoreyBoard Entertainment
Perth Concert Hall
Thursday 3 June, 7:30pm – NEW PERFORMANCE ADDED
Friday 4 June, 7:30pm – NEW PERFORMANCE ADDED
Saturday 5 June, 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Tuesday 8 June at 7:30pm – NEW PERFORMANCE ADDED
Wednesday 9 June at 7:30pm – NEW PERFORMANCE ADDED
Thursday 10 June, 2:00pm and 7:30pm
For further information: www.chessmusical.info
For bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au
Tickets from $85 (credit card charges and transaction fees apply). Licensed exclusively
by Music Theatre International (Australasia).