by Lynn on September 29, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre until Oct. 30, 2011. Book and lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood. Designed by Christopher Woods. Lighting by Ben Cracknell. Sound by Richard Brooker. Video Design by Jack James. Starring: David Erik, James Fox, Rebecca Lock, Tam Mutu, Shona White.

It’s 1979 in Merano, Italy; the World Chess Championship. American, Freddie Trumper, hot-headed and unpredictable will match off against Russian, Anatoly Sergievsky, steady and methodical. Each has a second to advise him. Freddie’s is Florence Vassy. She is also his lover. Anatoly’s second is Alexander Molokov.

An American vs. a Russian of course has political overtones. Tensions are high as are attractions. Eventually Florence and Anatoly have an affair with disastrous results.

Chess is a meaty rock musical. It uses the game of chess as a metaphor for the charged world of international politics and global animosities (Americans vs. Russians) as well as the minute maneuverings in relationships. It’s not the first musical to deal with an unlikely subject: the rise of Fascism in Germany (Cabaret), the creation of a painting (Sunday in the Park with George), the invasion of Japan by the West (Pacific Overtures). And like these others, the composers and lyricist of Chess have created a work that is as complex and compelling as the game itself. .

The music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (both late of ABBA), is beautifully melodic as well as intricate. The songs soar. They convey the philosophical as well as the emotional life of the person signing them.

Tim Rices’s lyrics are some of the best I have ever heard from him. They are thoughtful and dazzlingly complex, but say clearly what the characters are going through. The characters climb mountains of intellectual thought and emotions through these lyrics and they take us with them.

I love this musical. I love its daring, boldness, and ability to bring those of us who don’t know chess into that world without confusion.

The recent production of Chess is another matter. It’s a train wreck. And director-choreographer Craig Revel Horwood is the conductor.

Horwood has envisioned this as a loud, blaring show with constantly flashing lights, a barrage of video graphics and animation on a screen at the back, and constant activity by the cast and chorus. It suggests those watching it have a short attention span and need all that stimulus to keep their engaged. This seems counter to having to pay close attention to the lyrics—which in this case are often garbled.

Horwood has an instrument-playing-singing chorus dressed as various chess pieces. Some wear black and other white costumes. They swirl around the playing area often doing the most rudimentary choreography, that is more semaphore than dance.

They would stand at the sides of the playing area watching both Freddie and Anatoly sitting, pensive, playing their game.

The character known as the Arbiter is a well defined bare-chested man in a long frock coat and impressive hair do. He often accompanied by two clinging woman who paw his coat, if not his protruding pecs. Once they were rewarded by his kissing both. Odd that, since the lyric in his song, “The Arbiter” clearly says: “I don’t like women. I don’t do drugs.”

I’m sure if one was sitting in a seat dead in the centre of the orchestra one could easily see all the activity of the chess games, the relationships building, action perhaps clearly defined. I can only surmise that is where Horwood sat to direct his show, because had he even wandered over a little to the side of centre of the theatre, he wouldn’t see much. He has staged his chorus to block any indication of what is going on upstage centre. Every important scene is marred because his staging is so clumsy.

Having the chorus/actors might have been clever when John Doyle first did it with his wonderful production of Sweeney Todd, but it’s unnecessary here because it’s either distracting and a bit of a cheat since there are orchestra players playing off stage.

The main cast of four all sing very well with one standout. As Anatoly, Tam Mutu is electrifying. He has a powerful voice and is so intense in his acting we see the turmoil boiling in this thoughtful, guilt-ridden character.

As Feddie, James Fox is a bit over-wrought. As Florence, Shona White is a bit of an ice-queen and it works. As Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife, Rebecca Lock is composed but obviously hiding her own pent up emotions.

As Florence sings in “Nobody’s On Nobody’s Side: “What’s going on around me/Is barely making sense. “ She could be talking about this train wreck of a production. Stay home and listen to the CD.

Chess plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre until October 30.

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