Presented by Storeyboard Entertainment
Reviewed 27th May, 2021
Tyran Parke, who directed this concert version of Chess, states in the programme’s Director’s Notes that this familiar Benny, Björn and Tim musical has been given “a slightly restructured plot, a new approach to several scenes, condensed running time…”. (Thanks, Tyran.) The show’s slimmer, tweaked form is designed to suit its Concert format. Instead of a full production, the performance is sung and acted on a square of elevated stage with a 25-piece orchestra ranged behind and on stage left of the action. There’s a 40-voice choir of students from Elder Conservatorium’s Music Theatre undergraduate degree course tucked in on stage right. Most of the action happens on the central square, where principals and an 8-person acting/singing/dancing Ensemble present the story. No scenery. Few props. It helps us concentrate on the story, and the degree of authenticity and passion of the acting and singing.
The plot concerns itself with 1980’s Cold War politics as exemplified by international chess tournaments pitting American champion (Frederick Trumper) against his Russian opponent (Anatoly Sergievsky). The game of chess serves as a creaking metaphor for matters of human relationships, geopolitics and morality. Sound like your sort of night out? It may well be.
The role of Sergievsky is performed by the star of this show, Alexander Lewis. His acting and singing are immaculate. Few people on stage have sufficient vocal resources to sing the score at the level that this difficult rock/pop music demands. Lewis could. Lewis did. (No surprises; he’s the son of Patricia Price and Michael Lewis.) Lewis’ stamina, consistency, clarity and vocal flexibility were excellent. As The Arbiter, Brittanie Shipway ran a close second, filling her pivotal role with vocal and emotional strength. Her spoken voice work was as good as her singing. Shipway’s articulation is splendid, and her courage and energy help to power the production. Looming over all, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i plays the Svengali-like “second” to the Russian chess champion, Alexander Molokov. His bass-baritone is authoritative and arresting. His presence is just what is needed for the role. He sings with a clarity and flexibility rare in such a low vocal range.
There are some celebrities in the principal cast list. As Florence Vassey, Natalie Bassingthwaite is out of her depth. She gave the role her very best try, but her voice has neither the heft nor the emotional anchor to manage the role. Florence’s complexity asks for much more subtle acting nuances. Mark Furze, as American Trumper, has a wonderful high rock tenor voice. He is blessed with brilliant timbre and good range. By the show’s end his voice sounds dangerously depleted, especially in the high range. Svetlana is played by the quietly graceful Paulini, whose phrasing and breath management continue to be a problem, unless she is singing in her belt/mix voice. Rob Mills has the plum role of Walter De Courcey, a brash American entrepreneur. We miss much of his spoken and sung text, because his articulation is so poor.
The 8-person ensemble work hard all night, and the quality of their singing is very good indeed. Their interpretative dance moves range from interesting to curious. The two ensemble members who sing Embassy Lament provide a highlight of pinpoint accuracy, lively acting and fine singing.
The 25-piece band (including three keyboards) conducted by David Piper, underpinned the whole production. Piper’s tempi are very good, and the sound was faithful to the genre. Now and again Piper lets the orchestral sound overwhelm some of the principal soloists whose vocal skills are insufficiently robust. ABBA fans will find nothing to complain about; the score has been honoured and given lively voice. Speaking of which, the singing of the Conservatorium choir sounded beautiful – when we could hear it. The gain on principals’ mics was huge. When there were tiny dropouts on some mics, it was easy to hear just how much the solo voices were being amplified. We could have had a better choral presence in the sound mix; the style of the show is only enhanced by fattening the vocal complexity.
Tyran Parke has done a Production Company job on Chess, using resources of varying capabilities. His growing directorial skills have solved numerous problems that this old warhorse of a musical had. For ‘80’s aficionados and ABBA fans, it’s a must. There are some very beautiful things within this curate’s egg of a production.
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Rating out of 5: 3.5
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre
Season: 27th – 29th May, 2021
Duration: 3 hours (including 20 minute interval)
Tickets: Prices: $151:95 / $80:00
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby