Melbourne’s The Production Company has been on a bit of a roll with its recent productions. Last year’s Grey Gardens has been nominated for multiple Helpmann Awards, and July’s The Producers was an audience favourite. Their second offering for 2012 is the problematic Chess.
Chess is something of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ for directors, with no two productions quite the same: the setting may be Italy or Thailand (or both); the leading lady may be English or American, with a Hungarian or Czech background; even the eventual winner of the chess tournament varies.
The musical was conceived by lyricist Tim Rice at the height of the cold war (indeed, it was inspired the real life 1972 World Chess Championship between American Bobby Fisher and USSR’s Boris Spassky). With music by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, it started life as a successful concept album which spawned two hit singles – One Night in Bangkok and I Know Him So Well.
Unfortunately, the transition from record to stage was not a smooth one. A change of directors due to the failing health of A Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett meant the initial London production was already problematic, but still managed to run for three years. By the time it got to Broadway, it had been completely re-written, badly timed with the end of disintegration of the Soviet Union, and was a high-profile flop. The original Australian production in Sydney combined elements of both but was equally (and expensively) unsuccessful, as was a later Melbourne production.
Now it can be seen as a ‘period piece’ rather than a ‘contemporary story’, and it fares better.
Gale Edward’s version mostly stays true to the recent Royal Albert Hall concert version, but with a few tweaks of her own. Most notably, Florence (Sylvie Paladino) sings Heaven Help My Heart (the Act 1 closer in Sydney) near the beginning of the first act. This limits its dramatic impact, as we don’t yet know the character or her relationships, but does at least establish that her relationship with the American player Freddie (Martin Crewes, most recently seen in Zhivago) is on rocky ground.
Florence’s other ‘big number’, Nobody’s Side is now shared with the Arbiter (Michael Falzon, Rock of Ages ), making the character seem more of an active (perhaps malevolent) participant in the proceedings, rather than a neutral observer. But then, no-one in the show is quite what they seem.
The story is rather complex – a Chess story between East and West with all the resultant political intrigue – agents, spies, double-crossing, and a rather complicated love triangle/quadrangle (an echo of the personal lives of the creators – not only the well-known breakups that resulted in ABBA hits like Knowing Me, Knowing You and The Winner Takes It All, but Tim Rice was juggling his wife and his relationship with leading lady Elaine Paige). I Know Him So Well – a duet by Svetlana and Florence as respectively the wife and mistress of Anatoly in which each unwittingly demonstrates that they really don’t know him that well after all – is particularly close to Rice’s reality (and just like the ABBA boys, he got the woman who inspired the song to sing it for him!)
Edwards and her creative team have mostly resolved the issue with the historical setting of the show by giving it a mostly timeless, abstract quality with vaguely ‘80s abstract black and white costumes by Krystal Giddings on a stark chess board set by Shaun Gurton. A few anachronisms break the spell slightly, particularly the use of digital point and click cameras by both Freddie and some of the press.
Simon Gleeson ( Love Never Dies ) as the Russian, Anatoly, is a strength of the production, and brings the house down with Anthem to close the first act. Crewes gets his big number in the second act, when Pity The Child helps explain in explosive fashion how Freddie has become such an immature if gifted adult (with serious mother issues!)
Alinta Chidzey as Svetlana (best known for her recent performance as Anita in West Side Story ) and Mark Dickinson as Molokok are two performers in relatively minor roles but make a huge impact. It’s a treat to hear Chidzey sing Someone Else’s Story (originally written for Florence for the Broadway version, but given to Svetlana for Maria Mercedes to sing in the original Australian production.
The ensemble does great work, with interesting, rather stylised choreography by none other than Tony Bartuccio (himself something of an ‘80s icon for his dancers’ work on the Don Lane Show).
One Night in Bangkok is as colourful as it should be, aided by a performance that will be familiar to anyone who’s been to Boylesque at the GH on a Friday night!
Orchestra Victoria, under Musical Director David Piper, is once again in fine form.
Overall, Chess demonstrates what The Production Company does best: showcase talented Australian performers in a show that can’t really sustain a full professional production. As a Chess tragic and long-time ABBA fan who still has the well-worn double cassette of the concept album, and has participated in a few sing-alongs of the score at old fashioned piano parties with his similarly inclined friends, I wouldn’t miss it (although my other half wasn’t so amused by the sing-alongs on the tram home)!
Photo: Jeff Busby