First emerging as a concept album in 1984, before premiering in London four years later, Chess the Musical has had a very chequered history. With music by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and book and lyrics by Tim Rice, it has never lived up to its impressive credentials. This semi-staged concert production directed by Tyran Parke does nothing to improve its reputation. It’s still absurd and even more dated, and the cast is about name recognition more than great singers who can sell an extremely song-heavy musical.
Alex Lewis and Natalie Bassingthwaighte in Chess the Musical for StoreyBoard Entertainment. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Although this production has trimmed down earlier bloated versions of Chess to about 150 minutes, the plot is increasingly turgid. An allegory of the 1980s Cold War, it begins with a much-hyped chess tournament in Merano, Italy between American world champion Freddy and Russian Anatoly. By their sides are Florence, a Hungarian-born Englishwoman who is Freddy’s manager and love interest; Walter, an American who turns out to be a CIA agent; and Anatoly’s handler Ivan, an obvious KGB agent. The world’s chess boss, known as The Arbiter, tries to keep the simmering personal and political tensions between the US and Soviet camps from boiling over.
Another tournament takes place in Bangkok between Anatoly, who has announced his wish to defect, and the Soviets’ new champion. Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana, is on the sidelines in this second act overwhelmed by romantic complications, personal backstories, geopolitical manoeuvring and media manipulation.
The biggest name in this production is Natalie Bassingthwaighte, who was suited to the balance of singing, acting and a little dancing in 2019’s Chicago. As an actor she convinces as the beautiful, poised Florence, but her voice is stretched too far in this role. Tortured phrasing can’t always hide the shaky notes. As Freddy, Mark Furze initially displays lovely tone and phrasing, but that’s soon lost as he reaches into modern rock excess. It’s all part of a performance that conveys his character’s rockstar personality.
Paulini and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i in Chess the Musical for StoreyBoard Entertainment. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Alexander Lewis plays Anatoly suitably straight, while his singing veers from belting out some good solos to pedestrian. With every word and look, Rob Mills is hellbent on being the brash American, and succeeds as the one-dimensional Walter. In some welcome colour-blind casting, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i plays Ivan with a menacing darkness of bass and presence, and as Svetlana Paulini shows how a mighty, confident voice can make all the difference in this musical (despite what seems to be a strange attempt at Russian-accented singing). And yet she is rarely on stage. As The Arbiter, Brittanie Shipway pops up regularly with plenty of welcome Strong 80s Woman sass.
The ensemble of eight vogues with gusto, perhaps trying to make up for the paucity of other visual distraction. Vocally they offer good support, as does the stationary choir at the side of the stage, though all-vocal-hands-on-deck Endgame devolves into shouting. Filling the back and other side of the stage is a substantial band. Led by conductor and music director David Piper, they play with plenty of zip.
A concerted attempt to get back to the original concept album, the music is pompous early-80s pop-rock with drums, electric guitar and lots of dated synthesiser riffs that simultaneously sound tinny and cheesy (I hasten to add I grew up with and remain very fond of good 80s synth-pop). The music’s pomposity is only compounded by layering on orchestral strings, woodwind and brass. The performance I attended had some sound problems, most noticeably a persistent amplified hiss during the first act. It was distracting in quieter moments, perhaps because I was seated in front of a massive speaker at the edge of the auditorium.
The action takes place on a central raised platform of modest size. A few giant chess pieces, and chess-like representations of the musical’s four locations across Merano and Bangkok, are moved around this space. It’s a not very successful attempt to create visual interest and root the convoluted plot without much of a set (beyond a few chairs, a table, chess set and flags). While they are probably made of sturdier materials, these human-sized props look like flimsy grey cardboard constructions (or probably mere blobs for anyone sitting toward the back of the theatre). Designer Dann Barber is slightly less constrained with his predominantly black and white costumes, notably the sharp 80s power-suit styling of Florence and The Arbiter.
This show is strictly for fans of Chess the Musical.
StoreyBoard Entertainment’s Chess the Musical plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide on 27–29 May, Perth Concert Hall on 3–5 June, and QPAC, Brisbane 8–10 June