For Chess obsessives, who have known ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’s musical ever since 1986, the London Coliseum’s brand new production was worth the wait. (I’m not one of those fans. I was too young when it came out.) In the UK, besides the 32 year old performance at Prince Edward Theatre, only the Royal Albert Hall offered the chance to see Chess performed, again, as a concert event in 2008. But each time Chess was performed it was never the same. Andersson, Ulvaeus and its lyricists, Tim Rice constantly altered and edited the music which goes back to its original recording in 1981. Two of their songs ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and I Know Him So Well’ received much acclaim as chart singles. Music pop stars such as Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston sang notable variations of ‘I Know Him So Well.’
Now it has returned, back in the West End, as a gargantuan production. Its high-tech stagecraft, first-class cast, stunning performances from its ensemble and dancers as well as its top-notch music from the ENO orchestra and the ENO Chorus are show-stoppingly spectacular. As this was my first time seeing the musical, I was surprised to hear its classical music inspirations, including Gilbert and Sullivan, Russian folk music and J. S. Bach, which all added a dramatic effect – it’s not all razzle-dazzle and feel-good feelings in this musical. The mood of Chess is quite similar to grand opera, except for the singing, of course.
Chess is loosely based on chess personalities, Victor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. A romantic triangle takes place between two players, Russia: Anatoly Sergievsky and America: Freddie Trumper, in a World Chess Championship embroiled with geo-political conflict happening in the background. Things begin to go haywire when Trumper’s manager falls in love with her client’s rival.
Michael Ball’s vocals never fails to soar. He brought a new type of resonance in his portrayal of Sergievsky. He positions Sergievsky as an ambitious grandmaster who places chess on the side when he finds love, which, sadly, means sacrificing his family life and patriotism. Yet, there were times when I found his character emotionally cold. Even with his lover, Florence Vassy, performed by Cassidy Janson, I found it difficult to empathise and connect with him.
Tim Howar is a finely suited performer for the arrogant and proud American, Trumper. He has high energy levels on stage and tough rock vocals. Alexandra Burke doesn’t disappoint either – she’s absolutely sensational. Her encapsulation of Sergievsky’s wife, Svetlana, is sensitive and touching. She won a round of applause for her rendition of ‘Someone Else’s Story’. Together with Janson’s powerful voice, they sang ‘I Know Him So Well’ which brought the house down last night (at the press night.) I’m ashamed to say I missed her in A Carole King Musical – Janson has a beautiful voice.
Cedric Neal glowed and entertained as the Arbiter with his impressive vocal range. And rich toned Phillip Browne is excellent as well, singing as the scheming and pitiless Molokov. As I am familiar with the glorious ENO Chorus’ experience at the London Coliseum, they too didn’t fail to deliver on virtuosic singing. The entire cast should feel proud!
The London Coliseum has had the privilege of presenting two other semi-staged musicals: Glenn Close’s Sunset Boulevard and Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney Todd. Here is yet another example of the large stage triumphing again.
Matt Kinley‘s set design is filled with live camera action, red lights, LED screens and digitalised projections of mountain resorts and Russian military motifs. It is quite an artistic marvel. It brings the Cold War theme and international context to the forefront of the musical. The close-up shots of the performers add value, too, by providing the Russian-American tension closer to home. One could tell this production certainly had a large budget.
That being said, there was something lacking. Being a new-timer to Chess, I felt a raw emptiness in this production which made it difficult to connect with the lead characters. I don’t know if this was due to the characterisation that its songs writers had intended, but it certainly felt palpable – that absence of a relationship. Chess doesn’t end on a high note though. It concludes with deep contemplation. But for musical lovers, this should be seen or else they’ll be waiting another 30 years before it is staged again. Whether or not critics and original fans will enjoy the production is not a factor here. Given the short run, it will no doubt sell out. They say ‘life is a game of chess’. Sadly, not everyone can be satisfied with the outcome.
(I was provided a press ticket to review the show. All photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Chess is showing at the London Coliseum until 2 June. Click here for website.