Review By Alice Mooney
Chess the Musical takes its inspiration from the famous World Chess Championship match of 1972, between grandmasters Bobby Fischer of the United States, and Boris Spassky of The Soviet Union. With mass media coverage, it captivated much interest in the general public and was widely regarded as the ‘match of the century’ for its social and political implications.
As a musical, acclaimed director Tyran Parke exploits the underlying political intrigue and interference that hijacked this chess tournament, turning it into a battle to prove symbolically, one country’s dominance and power against its opponent during the Cold War conflict…with singing and dancing. Chess the Musical has a colourful past, from mixed reviews during its 1988 stint on Broadway, to many adaptations and re-writes to broaden and contemporise the narrative. Suffice it to say that it is an ambitious task to turn a political chronicle, centred around a dense and isolating game like chess, and turn it into a glitzy musical.
This production hosts a cast of familiar faces along with some exciting, up and coming talent. Natalie Bassingthwaighte shows off her vocal endurance in the role of Florence Vassy with a number of duets throughout. Rob Mills brightens up the performance as Walter de Courcey and Alexander Lewis is successful as the brooding intense Russian stereotype, Anatoly Sergievsky. While there is a love triangle present between Florence, Freddy Trumper (Mark Furze) and Anatoly, there is little investment in Florence and Freddy’s relationship as a couple to gain the full effects of this drama. It is here where plot and sub-plot compete with no clear priority given to either.
A definite highlight of the performance was the moment Paulini walked on stage. It almost felt like a performance from an entirely different show in many ways. Her vocal strength reverberated, you really feel all of her voice. She brought a commanding individual stage presence that really moved audience members and occupied many conversations during interval. She sings her own introduction, so you really have to listen to her lyrics to understand who she is in the plot and why her powerful entry occurs so late in the first act. I do not think I’d be alone in saying that I wanted to see and hear more from Paulini and she’ll certainly ring louder on my raider as a musical performer.
Despite the density of plot and detail, there is a twenty-five-piece orchestra present through-out the show which of course adds a visual depth to all the musical numbers, pulling out all the stops to execute the 80’s rock ballads right down to kitsch electric guitar solos. There will be a niche crowd who’ll no doubt get a real kick out of this bizarre and quirky collaboration. Within the instrumental perimeter is the slanted chess board as the main stage where all action and dialogue take place. Theoretically this should have worked, however the platform seemed to limit the already generous theatre space and made entries and exits a little clunky and delayed by a split level. I was a little lost at points and only needed perhaps more overt indicators of time and place within the set to help carry to story-line.
In a dynamic festival of dance numbers, I must commend the energy delivered by the talented ensemble cast who really carried this show. I’d like to make special mention to ensemble member Adam Noviello whose charisma and vocal timing brought a flurry of giggles in the first act and whose presence continued to shine throughout. Chess the Musical’s libretto is certainly one that expands your musical repertoire. Hats off to the cast and crew who, overall did not disappoint in their delivery of this strategic, political tangle of a musical.
Image Credit: Jeff Busby