Chess, written by the male members of ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus opened on London’s West End in 1986, after a successful concept album was released in 1984 to raise funds. The show ran for three years on the West End before undergoing it’s first of many rewrites and being transferred to Broadway, where it only survived for two months.

Chess has been through many rewrites over the years, including one for the 1990 Australian production, where all the action happened in Bangkok and all in one night. This production starred Jodie GIlies and Maria Mercedes (this can be seen on You Tube, and is worth a view.)

Kate Hebbard as Florence and Sally-Anne Cowdell as Svetlana

Kate Hebbard as Florence and Sally-Anne Cowdell as Svetlana

Vocally, this is probably one of the hardest shows to get right. The music in Chess is extremely difficult, both in timing and range, and every single cast member needs to have a very solid vocal technique, and a solid understanding of music theory. The only successful non-professional production of Chess I’ve seen in my 35 years of being involved in theatre, was Festival Theatre Companies concert version about 25 years ago. I don’t believe it’s a well written book, thus making it even more difficult to stage a successful production. I was hoping that my trip to Geelong to see GSODA’s current production would make all my preconceptions about Chess invalid and that I wold be surprised and would leave having a new appreciation for the show. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

The staging concept given to us by director Debbie Fraser was great. Having a chess board on the stage with larger than life chess pieces, having the actual game being played out on the gantry above was visually very effective.

Musical Director, Damien Montalto, is a very busy man, being involved in several shows and writing orchestral music for countries overseas, being so busy will ultimately end up with one of the projects suffering. The sound coming from the orchestra pit was rather sloppy and his ‘busyness’ showed. It sounded like the trumpet player was sight reading the part for the first time, he missed a lot of notes. There were also times where everyone seemed out of sync, like there was no one conducting them.

Taking on dual roles as choreographer and leading man was Jules Hart. Hart’s choreography was well executed and suited to the piece. It suited the level of experience of the cast members and was well thought out. As Freddy, Hart showed us in he has a beautiful lower register with ‘Pity the Child’, it’s unfortunate that Hart’s upper register suited to the role.

Members of the company of GSODA's Chess

Members of the company of GSODA’s Chess

Matthew Bradford as Anatoly has a great voice, and this role was well within his capabilities. Playing Anatoly’s love interest was Kate Hebbard. Their duet of ‘You & I’ was really pleasant. Lauren Martella took the part of the Arbiter – I found it unusual casting a female in a role that clearly was too low for her. Maybe if they had of transposed the Arbiter’s main songs, Martella would have shone more. Martella has a strong voice and her use of the stage was excellent.

David Mackay was clearly one of the stronger performers with his portrayal of Molokov a highlight of the show. Casey Tucker, who portrayed Walter, has a strong voice and good acting skills which worked well against Mackay. The standout of the night was Sally-Anne Cowdell, who gave a very polished performance as Svetlana. Cowdell’s smooth voice and effortless acting was a delight for this reviewer.

The ensemble were very busy, and tackled the difficult score with gusto. The main dancers were great, especially the talented Alicia GIlli. Another ensemble member who shone above the rest was Ryan Bentley, who has a great voice and was focused one hundred percent of the time.

The constant blackouts did not help the show move forward with a fluidity of which it is capable. The lack of accents, or inconsistent accents, had me wondering who was on which side at times. The eighties costumes were true to the period, and Meredith Cooney did a great job especially with all the black and white outfits.

There was one moment in Act Two where an older cast member found her way onto the stage and was standing there proud as punch, when it suddenly dawned on her that she had made her entrance too early, so she did this sideways shuffle off the stage hoping not to draw too much attention to herself. It was very funny to watch, but reminded me we have all been there!

The cast is clearly having a great time performing this production, and that’s great to see. Good luck for the rest of your season.

Chess continues at The Playhouse theatre at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre until October 15th.

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