Survey most of the populous asking if they’ve heard of the musical Chess and you’ll get blank looks swiftly followed by a “yeah nah”. Ask them if they know the ’80s hit One Night in Bangkok and your response will be in the affirmative. Well, this track is one of the few iconic tunes laced in this unlikely theatrical standard.
Music by ABBA’s front men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Disney’s hit song machine and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s right hand man Tim Rice left me thinking – “Who pitched the idea to whom?” Story Board Entertainment’s production of the rock opera Chess at Her Majesty’s Theatre left me wishing that it was neither.
Chess is a cold war story of the tensions between the USA and Russia, using the checked game as the vehicle to deliver the usual tropes of defection, pride and power. Touted as a concert version, one is quickly confused walking in to view a simple set with dressings that looked to have been papier-mâché’d by the local kindy during craft hour.
From the opening number, this production felt like I had driven 125 kilometres from the CBD to view a local repertory group on their bi-annual musical. And I mean no disrespect to regional amateur theatre groups because I’ve seen them put on far more entertaining productions than this mess.
With the orchestra displayed across the rear of the stage a large vocal chorus was squashed off to the left disappearing behind the arches. In the moments (which were frequent) where I lost interest in the main fare, I found myself wondering how far back the chorus stretched. Why not have them also serving as back drop for the principal action? This seemed like an obvious decision.
Choreography by Freya List was messy and frequently awkward. I’m left wondering if director Tyran Parke and List ever actually spoke about a concept. Even the cast seemed frequently uncomfortable, flailing around like the inflatable man at the front of a discount lounge store.
Soap actor and reality show fodder (The Voice) Mark Furze plays America’s chess champ Frederick Trumper. More than any other, Furze suffered the most with the movement and direction he was to deliver. Whilst it is clear Furze can belt out a rock tune, the complexity and range of the score had him frequently beaten.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Florence Vassy forms the point of a love triangle between America’s Trumper and Russia’s pride, Anatoly Sergievsky (Alexander Lewis). Bassingthwaighte is no newcomer to musical theatre, but appeared also to suffer from this production’s failings.
She delivered at moments when in her vocal comfort zone, such as the musical theatre duet classic, I Know Him So Well, but her American accent occasionally drifted into ocker twang. Lewis delivered well with the anthem, Anthem, finally providing a moment worthy of sitting forward and clapping with vigour.
Other reality star Paulini Curuenavuli, as Sergievsky’s wife, appears as quickly as she leaves in the show. Her appearance was either set up poorly directorially, or a fault in the show’s writing. None the less, Curuenavuli had the opportunity to show the power of her vocals, but suffered a fault which I will cover below.
Brittanie Shipway as the Arbiter completely lacked any of the gravitas with which the role required. Any intimidation these two superpowers needed to heed were simply not appreciable in her performance. A poor casting decision here.
Any theatrical production needs to adhere to the three “D’s” diction, diction, diction! As with any rock opera, the story is in the dialogue, lose that and you lose the plot closely followed by your audience.
The poor diction in this production was abundant, none more so than from Eddie Muliaumaseali’I as Russia’s diplomat Alexander Molokov. So much of the script was lost in poor diction that I could hear people around me stating, “I have no idea what is happening”.
Credit must be given to the other reality stock performer Rob Mills, whose every word could clearly be understood. This blew the idea that sound or performance space could be blamed for this failing.
And the costuming – I can’t even explain. Why were people in tropical Bangkok dancing around in leather coats? I think the creatives all need a good long zoom meeting to ensure they are all working on the same production. I expected more. Much more.
A conversation overheard at interval threw the idea around that perhaps the show is simply dated. I am sorry, but one the best TV series in recent times, The Queen’s Gambit, covers both the unlikely topic of chess as an interesting subject and the intricacies of east/west diplomacy. I forfeit!
Chess The Musical
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide
Performance: Friday 28 May 2021
Season: 27 – 29 May 2021 (ended)
Following the Adelaide season, Chess The Musical will be presented at the Perth Concert Hall (3 – 5 June); and Concert Hall – QPAC, Brisbane (8 – 10 June). For more information, visit: www.chessmusical.info for details.
Image: The Cast of Chess The Musical – photo by Jeff Busby