Chess The Musical is a complex story of the Cold War era, set against the backdrop of a World Chess rivalry between the USSR and the USA. 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 very short-lived season on Broadway with 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.
This latest production of Chess The Musical, by Newcastle’s The Very Popular Theatre Company would undoubtedly bring a smile to the faces of Andersson, Ulvaeus and Rice.
Like so many other productions last year, The Very Popular Theatre Company’s production of Chess was rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic, as theatres around the world closed. Nearly a full year later, Chess finally opened in Newcastle’s beautiful Civic Theatre for just four performances.
The idea to stage Chess in Newcastle started four years ago, when producer Daniel Stoddart and musical director Daniel Wilson were discussing their dream projects, with Wilson declaring his would be Chess The Musical. Considering his dream cast, Wilson suggested inviting David Harris and Silvie Paladino. Harris and Paladino accepted and the opening night audience certainly appreciated their participation, with both performers receiving a well-deserved walk-on applause.
With two internationally acclaimed performers leading the cast, this production promised so much – and it certainly delivered.
The rich music of Chess was given the full respect it deserved, with a large orchestra placed across the stage and a choir on tiers at the rear. The beautiful Chess score was masterfully brought to life under the direction of Daniel Wilson, with Kim Sutherland as the Choir Master.
With much of the performance space taken up by both the orchestra and choir, director Erin James cleverly used every bit of presentation space available. A set of stairs on each side of the stage and cutting through the orchestra provided opportunities for movement, and as a result the production felt much less of a minimalist, concert presentation style.
The story itself in Chess is complex. It’s detailed and intricate, with clever analogies between the politics of the cold war era and the game of Chess – and astute theatre patrons would no doubt draw ongoing parallels to current world politics. It’s certainly not simply a musical about a chess tournament, or even a love story, and it can be challenging for audiences experiencing Chess for the first time to grasp all the intricate details. To assist in the story-telling multi media images were displayed on either side of the stage, depicting scenery, posting captions of which team delegation was presently on stage, showing images of the real life Chess World Champions, and even assisting with the analogies between the cold war political manipulation of people and pawns on a Chess board. It was just the right balance to assist in the story telling, adding visual interest but without distracting the audience from what was happening on stage.
A group of 16 ensemble performers served as supporting cast and backing singers, moved props on and off stage, and added to the story telling. All 16 were strong performers in their own right and certainly held their own against the professional cast members.
But of course, all eyes were rightly on David Harris as Anatoly and Silvie Paladino as Florence.
David Harris is originally from Maitland – just out of Newcastle – and the international success of this “local boy” was no doubt well known by everyone in the audience. Joining him on stage, for the first time, were his two sisters – Khym Harris in the ensemble and Nattie Cory in the choir. Harris’ passionate and rousing rendition of ‘Anthem’, the blockbuster closing to act one, had an extra sense of poignancy from this internationally acclaimed performer, who now lives in New York, as he performed back in the local area of his childhood.
Silvie Paladino reprised the role for which she won a Green Room Award and a Helpmann Award nomination with The Production Company. I had the privilege of seeing Paladino in that TPC production in Melbourne and remember her extraordinary performance. But in reprising the role of Florence Vassy, it seemed as though Paladino took what earned her all those accolades and then, incredibly, lifted her performance a few more notches. Her stunning performance of “Nobody’s Side” had the audience in complete jaw-dropping awe. I did wonder if the direction from Erin James was simply “go for it”. I’ve listened to a lot of renditions of ‘Nobody’s Side’ and Silvie Paladino’s is by far my favourite. But it wasn’t just the purity and power of her voice that commanded attention but her passionate portrayal of Florence.
Harris and Paladino shared a beautiful onstage chemistry, and their rendition of ‘You and I’ was both heart-wrenching and believable, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the enraptured audience as they shared a kiss. Their voices blended beautifully and I certainly hope there are more opportunities for this leading man and leading lady of Australian theatre to share the stage together.
The risk of having such strong, award winning performers in David Harris and Silvie Paladino is that the rest of the cast may not match that level of performance, but this was never the case at all, with not a single weak performance amongst any of the cast. In fact, it had me reaching for the program after the show to discover the background of these incredibly talented – and experienced – performers who held their own against Harris and Paladino. Indeed there is an incredibly talented pool of performers in the Newcastle region!
Marty Worrall was brilliant as Freddie Trumper and Amy Vee was stunning as Svetlana Sergievsky.
Marissa Saroca commanded the stage, oozing confidence and sass as the Arbiter. When she sang “Cause I’m The Arbiter and I know best”, with her killer rock vocals, no-one was arguing.
Christopher Allan was entirely convincing as Alexander Molokov and his operatic background brought an incredible richness and formidable power to his performance.
Rob McDougall gave a superb performance as Walter deCourcey.
With some artistic production ideas from the producer and musical director, the directing was handed over to Erin James to bring their dream project to life. Erin James’ extensive professional experience shines through, with some very intelligent and mature directorial decisions. Every part of the stage was used effectively, and the show had the perfect balance of multimedia images, dance numbers and stage movements. Every aspect of the show felt well considered and the cast moved effortlessly across the limited performance space. The whole show felt well rehearsed and prepared.
At times the choir were active participants, and other times they were obscured, keeping the audience attention focused on the story-telling and avoiding any unnecessary distraction.
Chess is a musical of contrasts and these were certainly brought out for deeper analysis.
David Harris was strong, steadfast and confident as Anatoly Sergievsky, the Russian chess champion – determined to win and unyielding of his convictions – yet also very likeable in order for his relationship with Florence, and Svetlana’s yearning for his return, to make sense.
It provided a contrast to his American opponent, Freddie Trumper, played by Marty Worrall. Worrall brought a perfect edgy eccentricity and quirkiness to his character – the madman beginning to crack. Despite their contrasts, both characters shared the common love of chess and fierce loyalty to the game. The unwavering stability of Harris’ Anatoly and the irrationality of Worrall’s Freddie gave sense and meaning to the decisions made by their characters as the story unfolded.
Silvie Paladino portrayed an intelligent, confident and passionate Florence Vassy, in contrast to Amy Vee’s portrayal of Svetlana Sergievsky. Vee brought a certain pitiful, but endearing, fragility to her character. Amy Vee’s rendition of ‘Someone Else’s Story’ was poignant and heartfelt and again, endearing enough that Anatoly’s decision to return to his wife made sense.
While that sense of fragility remained in Vee’s portrayal, her duet with Silvie Paladino in ‘I Know Him So Well’ was stunning and the power and strength in Vee’s voice matched beautifully with Paladino – which is no small feat!
Paladino’s final moment, in a reprise of ‘Anthem’, was gut-wrenching and it was hard for the audience to not feel sorry for her character – the ultimate loser.
Costume design by Erin James, Hayley Stoddard and Rachel Wilson was stunning. The black and white combinations of the ensemble are almost to be expected in any production of Chess, but the quality of the garments is what drew my attention. Each ensemble member had their own unique look and from the audience (I was sitting close to the front), the costumes looked as though they were quality garments made specifically for the show by a professional costume designer.
But what stood out the most was the very clever choices of colours. Svetlana was dressed in a bright communist Russian red, Freddie Trumper in crisp all-white, the Russian delegation in their black. It was very clear which team each person was on. Then there was Walter deCourcey – American, but in a pale grey suit – not white – and perhaps a nod that his motives may not be entirely pure?
And then there was our leading lady and man. Florence, despite being part of the American delegation, was not in a white outfit, but instead had a bold blue top with black pants and jacket. It certainly helped Paladino stand out against the crisp whiteness of Worrall’s outfit as part of the American team, but it also brought an element of “maybe I’m on nobody’s side” in the colour choice – the question Florence asks in her Act 1 number ‘Nobody’s Side’. In Act 2 Paladino had changed into an all black number.
And then there was Anatoly – played by David Harris. Not in a black suit like the rest of the Russian delegation, but navy. Close, but strikingly different.
Dance numbers provided visual interest during musical interludes and were included in just the right moments to aid the story. Choreography by Rachel Wilson was slick and brilliantly executed with precision by the ensemble dancers.
An excellent lighting design by Jacob Harwood enhanced the show.
Opening night was not flawless. The sound balance threatened the story telling in the opening numbers, but was fixed after a few songs and thankfully was corrected in time for the big blockbusters. There were a few missed microphone cues, but these no doubt improved with the subsequent performances. However, those little moments did not take anything anyway from the overall quality of this production and the cast received a well-deserved standing ovation from the full house.
This was a sensational production of Chess and, not surprisingly, the short season quickly sold out. I’ve seen several productions of Chess and this is my favourite version. This quality production would not have looked out of place on any professional stage in Melbourne or Sydney, and The Very Popular Theatre Company have indeed set a very high bar for future productions.
Photo credit: Peter Stoop Photography