Theatre

Review

Chess The Musical: A game of intrigue, tension and love

Almost forty years on and Chess The Musical is still delivering

For anyone unfamiliar, Chess The Musical ’s narrative is a high-energy, intriguing, and clever take on history. 

Using a chess rivalry between American grandmaster Freddie Trumper (played by Mark Furze) and his Soviet Russian counterpart Anatoly Sergievsky (Alexander Lewis) – spanning hotly contested tournaments across Italy and Thailand – as an allegory for Cold War tensions between the US and Russia; political pressures, plotting, social commentary, and even a love triangle, run throughout Chess’ almost-three-hour stage time.

With the show taking places on a small, elevated platform designed to look like a life-sized chess board, Chess’ narrative intention is clear – everyone here is a pawn, and it’s hard to tell just who is playing who in this game of tension, love, and strategy.

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Photo credit: Jeff Busby

But the plot has never quite been Chess’s drawcard. As proved successful with many musicals of the time, when it first arrived in 1984, Chess was launched as a concept album. And at the hands of ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the critically acclaimed work secured a string of top 10 hits around the world – two years before it even reached the stage.

Nearly 40 years after its initial release, and the latest Australian production of Chess can still command an audience – in part due to the strength of its musical numbers, but largely because of the powerhouse ensemble of vocalists delivering them.

It is clear from the outset that the show’s creative team wanted audiences to enjoy Chess’ timeless score in all of its original, concept album’s glory – and thanks to the brilliant 26-piece orchestra (who are positioned around the stage, effortlessly becoming part of the spectacle) delivering the songs concert-style – the full splendour of the concert-meets-musical is delivered.

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Photo credit: Jeff Busby

You would have a hard time deciding who the ultimate vocal powerhouse is on stage. Natalie Bassingthwaighte, with her soaring vocals, hits all the right notes as Florence Vassy. The Hungarian-American refugee, sitting at the centre of much of the musical’s drama, she effortlessly moves between spiky duets to soaring ballads, saving her biggest performance for belter ‘Nobody’s Side’.

Paulini – while in the criminally under-utilised role of Svetlana Sergievskaya – is just as jaw-droppingly good, her performance of ‘Someone Else’s Story’ is stunning, and when she performs alongside Bassingthwaighte in ‘I Know Him So Well’, she ensures that while her stage time is short, she is definitely unforgettable.

As Anatoly Sergievskaya, New York Metropolitan Opera singer Alexander Lewis is exceptional, providing commanding performance after commanding performance, ending the first act in a storm of applause after his effortless delivery of huge power ballad ‘Anthem’. His classical vocal is perfectly juxtaposed by the rock stylings of onstage newcomer Mark Furze. He is perfectly suited to the troubled, bad boy persona of Fred Trumper, especially on ‘Pity The Child’, making the pair fitting rivals.

The same can be said for Chess’ antagonists, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i whose powerful bass timbre is perfectly suited to the manipulations of Ivan Molokov, while Rob Mills bewitches as smarmy media company agent Walter De Courcey.

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Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Alongside musical theatre all-rounder Brittanie Shipway as The Arbiter, controlling proceedings with confidence and poise, and the hugely talented ensemble, the cast couldn’t have been better selected.

Nature is healing, the theatre is open, and it’s moments like the raucous applause that celebrated Chess The Musical that reminds us why it’s so good to be back.

Chess The Musical will arrive at Perth Concert Hall for a strictly limited season from Thursday 3 June until Saturday 5 June. Tickets are on sale via Ticketmaster.com.au.