Chess the Musical | The Production CompanyLeft – Silvie Palladino and Simon Gleeson. Cover – Martin Crewes and Simon Gleeson. Photos – Jeff Busby

The history of Chess the Musical is now legendary and almost more fascinating than the story told on stage.

Beginning life as a concept album in the mid 80s, its first staged production was in London, where it ran for nearly three years, after undergoing many trials and changes.  

A short-lived Broadway season (where the show was re-written and re-staged) and separate financially disastrous Australian productions (Sydney in 1990 and then Melbourne in 1997) relegated this musical to smaller productions and concert stagings.  

Why? The score by ABBA geniuses Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, with lyrics by Tim Rice, is complex, sometimes brilliant and mostly memorable. The idea is interesting, featuring a battle between two Chess Masters and a doomed love affair, set against the Cold War between Russia and the West. The book, however, does not manage to bring everything together coherently.

In this current production, there is very little spoken dialogue, most of the scenes are sung through, and often, expecially in Act One, one is treated to one ensemble production number, immediately followed by another production number. It is a hard task trying to get involved in the lives of the major characters. 

We are however treated to some of the glorious rock/pop numbers that populate the show – Heaven Help My Heart, Where I Want To Be and the stirring Anthem which closes Act One (and performed brilliantly by Simon Gleeson). 

Act Two opens with the chart-topping One Night in Bangkok, and includes You and I, I Know Him So Well and another superb moment – Martin Crewes performing the dramatic and moving Pity the Child. These are great numbers and the ensemble and principals (including Silvie Paladino, Michael Falzon, Mark Dickinson, Alinta Chidzey and Bert LaBonte) all sing extremely well. But the book... just does not manage to link these highlights into a show that sounds like it should be so much better.          

Orchestra Victoria, with musical direction by David Piper is a treat, although the sometimes over-amplification sounded like you were sitting at a rock concert rather than a musical.

Using a simple staging (a raised chess board), a largely black and white design and minimal props, director Gale Edwards has accepted the challenge of staging this piece for a new audience. Concentrating on the music and lyrics does work well, but there is no denying that as musical theatre it still struggles to connect. As a concert staging it fares infinitely better.

The Production Company presents
Chess the Musical
lyrics by Tim Rice | music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson

Director Gale Edwards

State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: August 18 – 26, 2012

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