Saturday, October 8, 2011

Chess: The Musical

Who would have thought a musical about a board game would be good?  I first discovered Chess: The Musical because of a piece from this concert, and found a recording of a concert version from 2008 starring Idina Menzel and Josh Groban.  I didn't read the plot synopsis first and it took a few listens to figure out who was who, but I loved the score.  At first listen it wasn't hard to hear some of the same type sounds as in Mamma Mia! (Chess is composed by ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with lyrics by Tim Rice), but after a while it tends to take on its own character and the "everyone ends up happy" ending from Mamma Mia! disappears to the much more somber one of Chess.  Anyhow, when it was coming to Toronto after touring the UK and before a possible transfer to London's West End, it was on my "go see" list right away.

In short the story takes place at the World Chess Championships in Merano, Italy and Bangkok, Thailand one year apart.  The Russian (Anatoly Sergievsky) and The American (Freddie Trumper) compete, not just at chess, but for the Hungarian, and originally Freddie's second, Florence Vassy.  With behind the scenes scheming by Anatoly's compatriot Molokov, and the journalist Walter de Courcy, Anatoly's wife Svetlana arrives adding to the complications.  The Arbiter acts as a sort of narrator.

Character positioning in "Deal (No Deal)"
The best way to classify the set is "multi media" as newspaper headlines, names (possibly of former world chess champions?), and the journalist Walter's (played by James Graeme) reports appear on the backdrop.  The raised centre stage platform is completely LED lights lending itself to anything imaginable and providing a cue to different locations.  The hotel rooms had full white floors, the Arbiter's solo was funky flashing arrows in red, and a central aisle was created for the arrival of Svetlana.  It was put to best use when divided into squares for "Deal (No Deal)" which involves a series of duets between the major players (Molokov and Florence, Florence and Anatoly, Anatoly and Svetlana, Molokov and Walter, Walter and Freddie, link is to the concert version without the squares).  Each stood in a square and, depending who they were having a conversation with, they would move to the one that was lit.  It was incredibly simple, yet very effective.

Musicians as chess pieces during Molokov and Walter's duet
"Difficult and Dangerous Times" (
As for players, well London casts seem to be something special.  The musicians were completely integrated into the play, playing instruments while walking around, sitting at the side, even lying haphazardly across the stage.  No hiding in a pit, they represented chess pieces.   As the song "The Story of Chess" says "King, and queen and rook.  And bishop, knight and pawn...", each was there.  The knights even had horses tails.  The Black Bishop played clarinet and saxophone, there were a few types of accordions, pawns mostly played strings (it was odd to see cellos playing standing up).  The flute player (pawn I think) had one section where she lay down and stood back up again, all while playing.  It was kind of funny to see the bass and cello players with their instruments lying on top of them as they played, granted most of that was strumming or pizzicato, but still completely not what they must be used to and as a result quite intriguing to watch.

And the voices...Wow!  At times Shona White who played Florence sounded like Idina, but what stamina.  The character is on stage almost the entire time, and the majority of the action is through song, this isn't a straight dialogue rich musical.  I particularly liked her "Mountain Duet"(concert version again; Duet starts ~ 8:43) with  Tam Mutu as Anatoly.  He didn't have Josh Groban's distinctiveness but an incredible voice with perhaps even more nuance to it.  There was some overacting at the end of "Endgame" where he breaks down and the sobs seemed a bit forced, but other than that he exuded Russian character and completely sold the part.  His rendition of "Anthem" to close Act 1 was poignant.

Svetlana and Anatoly
Svetlana was performed by Rebecca Lock and from the first note of her singing "Someone Else's Story" (starting ~ 10:19) when she arrives in the second act, it was heavenly.  Her voice was so clear with a sweetness missing from the character of Florence, it instantly drew you in.  The different vocal styles complemented each other in the ironic Florence/Svetlana duet "I Know Him So Well" where they sing about how well they know Anatoly yet both have reached completely opposite conclusions about what he needs.

The Arbiter (
Then of course there is the trumpet playing Arbiter, always walking with slow purpose, somewhat ominously, anywhere he goes, using his instrument for dramatic effect as well as playing.  David Erik sported the shirtless, floor length leather jacket with style and ease, showing off a defined if not completely ripped 6-pack.  "One Night in Bangkok" has the cast in their skivvies, some showing more than one might want to see.

James Fox as Freddie, the egomaniac American, was easy to develop disdain for.  However, when he broke out the guitar and accompanied himself in "Pity the Child" you suddenly were given a different glimpse of the character.  Acted out, it's so much easier to feel understanding and sorry for him, than from just a recording.

Freddie and Florence in "Commie Newspapers"
Apparently Chess has had a rocky history of stage productions, so I highly recommend catching this one before it disappears across the Atlantic again.  Even without the stereotypical happy ending, it leaves one with an admiration for the performer and the knowledge that because Florence is a strong character she won't be down for long and will get back in the game, of life, if not chess.

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