REVIEW: Chess the Musical (Auckland Music Theatre)

Still holding out for the sequel, Checkers the Musical.

Checkmate [by James Wenley]

Still holding out for the sequel, Checkers the Musical.

Before the total world domination of MAMMA MIA, there was Chess. Chess is a Musical that should not work on paper. A Musical surrounding the championship of a sport that doesn’t get all that many peole excited , against the backdrop of cold war politics… AND from the men of ABBA, trying to prove themselves as more than just mega successful composer/performers of ridiculously catchy pop tunes. There’s a flagrant whiff of pretension about the whole thing. But this soon dissipates as you are caught by the drama, the maneuvering of pieces and people off and on the board, and a bold and surprising score.

Chess debuted at the West End in 1986, following an earlier well-received concept album from composers Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyricist Tim Rice that produced hits like ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘I Know Him so Well’. With Chess there’s a critical consensus that while the pop enthused music is brilliant, the book has never really worked; following its West End season it was dramatically changed for Broadway, and then again for a Sydney production.

Auckland Musical Theatre launch us into a Chess for the MTV generation. Director Richard Neame places the show firmly in the cultural memory of the era –  the company, deliciously decked with 80s styled flair, are led in The Story of Chess by the Arbiter (Kit Haines) – not some dour suited Chess judge, but carrying a David Bowie cool – and with his own group of Arbiter girls in tow. That’s right, Chess is sexy, a mass-media extravaganza.

Act One brings the 1986 World Chess Championship in Morano, Italy. It takes a while to ease into the drama – there’s a lot of set-up and you need to pay close attention to the lyrics to begin to make sense of it – but the show soon settles when focusing in on the cross-country rivalry between Freddie, the American champion (played with a swagger and hard edged rock voice by David Mackie), and the Russian Anatoly (Martin Rhodes, superb). Caught in the middle is Florence (Gabby Smith), Freddie’s second, whose loyalty gets tested when she falls for Anatoly. Anatoly for his part becomes torn between his wife, his lover, his country, and his duty, and it this struggle that becomes the central move of Act Two, set in Bangkok. On the sides are political and media posturing by behind-the-scenes powers Molokov (Nick Brown) and Emma Leon (Barbara).

This show ignores the usual chess board stage motif, playing out on a raised bare stage with the audience on three sides – we’re up close and personal and extremely well staged. The choreography (Teesh Szabo) is sharp and fun; including a nod to the Russians in The Soviet Machine, and even some bureaucratic office chair dancing in Embassy Lament.

The chess matches in contrast are focused and un-flashy, the music and body language engrossing and full of tension, even if we can’t see the pieces on the board.

Gabby Smith is a real standout, delivering in spine-tingling dramatic ballads Nobody’s side, and Heaven help my heart, and Martin Rhodes closes Act One with gusto in Anthem. The music – power ballads, opera, snyth pop, ABBA and all (at one point threatening to burst into a chorus of ‘Honey Honey’…) are a demanding ask, but pulled off with assured style by the orchestra and company; this production’s greatest strength (Musical Director Chris Moore).

Chess revels in 80s excess, elevating the game to a cultural event. While the political stakes get lost amongst the fantasy, we’re kept enthralled by the personal, emotional story of Anatoly and Florence.

Chess is presented by Auckland Music Theatre and plays until 26th May. More details see iTICKET (last seats remaining for Saturday Matinee!).

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