Capitalising on the success of the Netflix hit The Queens Gambit, StoreyBoard Entertainment bring to life a semi-staged concert production of the much loved, and listened to, Chess the Musical.
With music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA, lyrics by Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, and book by Rice, the story involves a politically driven, Cold War–era chess tournament between two grandmasters, one American and the other Soviet Russian, and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other.
Chess symbolically reflected the Cold War tensions present in the 1980s. The musical has been referred to as a metaphor for the whole Cold War, with the insinuation being made that the Cold War is itself a manipulative game.
As with other productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, a highly successful concept album was released prior to the first theatrical production.
In the case of Chess, the concept album was released in the autumn of 1984 while the show opened in London’s West End in 1986 where it played for three years.
Chess is frequently revived and restructured but what endures is the heart and soul of the original score.
Director and dramaturg Tyran Parke has created a new version of Chess for us to enjoy, with love, passion and politics at its core.
While the story can be tricky to navigate and follow, Parke’s version is stripped back [literally, culling seven tracks and removing outdated and bigoted lyrics] focusing on intention, collaboration and storytelling, which he does best.
But let’s face it, we are all here for the music.
And my, what a powerful score and brilliant orchestration we were subjected to!
Featuring a 26 piece orchestra and directed and conducted beautifully by David Piper, song favourites such as ‘One Night in Bangkok’ [the most Abba-esque of the soundtrack] and ‘I Know Him So Well’ blazed through the auditorium via the electrifying genius of the Southern Cross Symphony Orchestra and the talented sound designer Michael Waters.
Gavan Swift’s striking lighting design lit up the giant and unpretentious chess board set by Dann Barber, who also created the tri-tone, 80’s inspired costumes which enriched the show perfectly.
Choreographing the production to work with a mix of rock, pop and opera, Freya List delivered. I especially loved the moments where the ensemble pushed and pulled the movement of the leads, like pawns on a chessboard. The stage movement was smooth, transitioning gracefully across the set and through the score.
There were many gorgeous moments from the ensemble, who honestly sang for their supper with this one, and special kudos to Kaya Byrne and Adam Noviello for their tremendous performance in ‘Embassy Lament’. Easily one of my favourites.
The lead cast were each procured specifically to bring Parke’s diverse vision to life.
Brittanie Shipway, as The Arbiter, a role not usually reserved for a female, kept the story alive and moving, narrating and acting as the no nonsense referee of the chess matches. Her tone soars in ‘The Story of Chess’.
Bold and brashy American adviser, Walter De Courcey, was played with conviction by Rob Mills. This role sat with him naturally.
Paulini was exquisitely effortless as Svetlana, the long suffering wife of Sergievsky – delivering her rendition of ‘Someone Else’s Story’ with steely determination and power. This pop queen has made her mark in the music theatre scene.
Eddie Muliaumaseali’l as Ivan Molokov was a resonating, conniving and manipulative second to Alexander Lewis’ troubled and conflicted Anatoly Sergievsky.
Lewis’ sonorous and resounding tenor voice echoing throughout the auditorium in ‘Where I Want To Be’ was vocal virtuosity.
The casting gods aligned with Mark Furze [Freddie Trumper] and Natalie Bassingthwaitghte [Florence Vassy] in these roles.
Furze brought his rock chops and acting prowess and absolutely smashed ‘Pity The Child’, while playing the self-absorbed, short-tempered bad boy American champion.
As Freddie’s strong-willed second and possible paramour, and later, Anatoly’s mistress, Bassingthwaighte belts, soars and pierces your soul as she carries the musical from beginning to end.
The culmination of Florence’s heartbreak, despair and frustration is seen in ‘Anthem: Reprise’ and her feeling of freedom and relief result in moving many audience members to tears.
This team of consummate professionals have brought this production into the 21st century to continue its journey and forge the legacy of the music that is Chess.
Happy theatre travels…