OVER the years since the 1984 release of the concept album from which this show evolved, it has developed quite a cult following. But it has always had a mixed reception from critics and audiences, here and in other parts of the world. The original production ran for three years in London’s Prince Edward Theatre, but on Broadway, it survived, with a Richard Nelson book replacing Tim Rice’s original, for only two months, in the Broadhurst Theatre.
With its sung-through style, there is virtually no spoken dialogue and it requires vocal and musical talent of the highest order if it is to succeed, but, undaunted, Weston-Super-Mare Operatic Society decided to present this now all-too-rarely seen show to local audiences.
Their courage was rewarded with very decent, if not capacity. houses, who in turn have been rewarded with a stylish set, lovely use of black and white costumes and motifs to go with the chess pieces illustrated on the well-used video screens, and high quality vocal and musical interpretation.
The story concerns the clash of chess champions American Freddie Trumper (Carl Holdway Bradley) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Neil Stephenson), manipulated by commercial interests on one side and political masters on the other, as they play for the World Chess title. Their personal lives become intertwined as Freddie’s girlfriend Florence Vassy (Rachel Lane) joins Anatoly, who has skipped over to the West, and his wife, Svetlana (Natalie Baker), arrives in an attempt to lure him back to Russia and his family. There are other complications leaving you realising that then – as it probably still is – if such public figures are important to their governments, they are mere pawns in the game.
They certainly for Edward Creswick’s suavely calculating Russian chess representative Alexander Molokov, and Rob Tilke’s business-first-and-always American TV executive Walter de Courcey. And they fare only marginally better at the hands of tournament arbiter Leah Farmer, to whom the tournament rather than the people involved is the most important item.
The company proved that this complex score was well within their range, whether singing solo, in duets – Anatoly and Florence combining to great effect in You and I, and Florence and Svetlana in I Know Him so Well – quartets, with Molokov and Walter more than simply pulling their weight, a beautifully executed sextet, or the well-rehearsed chorus showing their quality with Anatoly displaying wonderfully controlled power in the Anthem that closes Act 1.
Unobtrusively hidden on stage was MD Matthew Tilke and a well-tuned band of musicians providing finely balanced support to the singers. The equally committed dancers were as comfortable with Samantha Aylott and Felicity Berry’s choreography for the Italian and Bangkok settings as they were with more classical balletic movement.
There were moments when you were not sure if Chess was meant to bring a political message or be a romance, but this was not the fault of co-directors Annie Ford and Georgina Barry, who faithfully brought Tim Rice’s book alive, showing that in many ways the story still has messages for a modern audience.
The company’s next offering in April 2024 at the Playhouse will be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Judging from their performances in this show you can, if they are available, see many of this cast put to good use in that classic musical.