With music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and book and lyrics by Tim Rice, Chess The Musical has had a somewhat checkered past. The original concept album released in 1984 received rave reviews and the single ‘I Know Him So Well’, performed by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, still remains the biggest selling UK chart single ever by a female duo. Two years later the stage production opened on the West End to mixed reviews. The subsequent Broadway production suffered from excessive editing and revisions, enduring less favourable reviews. What remained though was an incredible musical score and an intriguingly complex story.
I’ve seen quite a number of productions of Chess The Musical and while each one has been very unique in its interpretation, it’s a musical usually done as a concert presentation. CLOC’s production is the most staged version I’ve seen. It’s an incredibly ambitious undertaking for any company and it’s easy to forget this is a group of amateurs.
Experienced director Shaun Kingma has delivered an outstanding production of Chess. Kingma’s extraordinary set design enhances the story telling and includes huge set pieces that are moved swiftly on and off stage by a team of stagehands, creating not only a sense of movement and change of scenery, but a sense of grandeur that matches this epic musical score. The “lift” scene was brilliantly and cleverly done. That alone would have been impressive, but Kingma’s design extends further to include live camera work, multimedia images and LED lighting that converts the stage to a giant chess board. It all comes together to create a visual feast that beautifully accompanies the lush score and rich vocals. Florence’s flashback scenes are powerful and haunting. Indeed, Kingma’s direction is visionary.
While the story is still set in the past, there’s a sense that this is also a modern piece and the story feels very relevant to our current world. With all the current wars raging and ongoing political tensions with countries in our own region, Chess is no longer a story for the last millenium.
Chess is a complex musical and Kingma has captured that complexity. It’s the story of a chess competition with the backdrop of the cold war, and yet it’s also a complex love story. It’s a story about political dealings. It’s a story about power, loyalty and betrayal. There is so much to unpack and explore in this piece. The opening song explains that the game of chess was first created for a prince to explain to his grieving mother how his brother had died as they fought for the throne. From those opening lines the scene is set that the game of chess has always been used as a parallel to political issues. People are used as pawns by those in power. Chess is an intellectual game – so too is the musical. But, for those who don’t quite get the complexities of the storyline, the visual staging and killer score still makes this a thoroughly satisfying work of theatre.
Kingma’s extraordinary set design is matched by a brilliant lighting design by Brad Alcock and sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco. The challenging musical score is expertly brought to life under the musical direction of Tyson Legg and is masterfully played by a team of 22 brilliant musicians who deliver a note-perfect and beautifully rich sound.
Tamara Finch’s excellent choreography is as varied as the eclectic mix of songs in this score and is effortlessly executed by feature dancers and full ensemble numbers. David Wisken’s wig and makeup design is stunning.
Adding to the wow factor and talking points of this production is Victoria Horne’s costume design. Initially, I had some questions about some of the very revealing costumes – is CLOC making chess sexy? But then I realised, it’s not the game of chess that is sexy, it’s power. Power is sexy – and sometimes sex is power. And suddenly those questionable costumes made a lot more sense. As to be expected, the costumes of Chess contain a lot of black and white, and it was interesting to note which characters changed not simply costumes, but colours as the story progressed. Nobody’s on nobody’s side after all.
The massive cast of 40 performers deliver a rich sound worthy of this wonderful score, but it’s the principal cast that make this production a resounding success.
Rosa McCarty is outstanding as Florence, delivering a passionate and gut-wrenching performance. Rachel Rai is stunning as Svetlana, and their duo in ‘I know Him So Well’ will satisfy those who have listened to the original cast recording of Chess on repeat.
Mark Doran delivers a strong performance as Anatoly, and his rousing rendition of ‘Anthem’ is a highlight.
Aaron Taylor delivers a suitably quirky and charismatic Freddie Trumper, bringing a rock star quality to the character.
Amelia Rope is a bold and confident Arbiter. James O’Donovan is excellent as Walter. Jake Turner-Clarkson is simply outstanding and perfectly cast at Molokov.
Admittedly, I had very high expectations of CLOC’s production of Chess The Musical and this production exceeded them all. If you have never seen Chess The Musical, this is the production to see. If you’ve already seen Chess, go see this version. You won’t be disappointed.
CLOC’s production of Chess The Musical is now playing at the National Theatre in St Kilda.
For more information and tickets: https://www.cloc.org.au/
Photos by Ben Fon