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Review: CHESS THE MUSICAL at Perth Concert Hall

Big performances from big names are just one drawcard from this stunning show

Review: CHESS THE MUSICAL at Perth Concert Hall

StoreyBoard entertainment went big with their production of CHESS THE MUSICAL. It's a big cast giving big performances in a big setting, and backed by an orchestra and choir, the whole performance comes together to be an impressive production. Whilst the stage itself is fairly small, the creative team made the performances really pop, really letting the emotion behind the stories stand out.

Whilst it would be easy to begin with the impressive cast that is front and center of this performance, what really makes this show is the creative team. Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame created the CHESS concept album as an outlet for their ideas that didn't necessarily line up with the group. The album (released before the musical) topped the charts and was praised at the time for its many layers and impressive sounds. Musical director David Piper devoted a great deal of time to recreating the original sounds and intent of the album for a score which leaps from power ballads to classic Broadway styles to 80s synth pop and it all works perfectly. Having been engineered at the studios ABBA used, the original album sounds a lot like ABBA and this has been as faithfully reproduced as possible. The 26-piece Perth Symphony Orchestra, led by renowned Perth based conductor Craig Dalton, hit the brief perfectly. Whilst the Perth Symphony Orchestra playing an Anderson/Ulvaeus score in the Perth Concert Hall would be an experience in and of itself it provides a perfect backing to CHESS THE MUSICAL, and the position of the orchestra- close to and around the stage- bring an impressive atmosphere to the performance.

Director Tyran Parke and set designer Dann Barber utilized a deceptively simple layout for the stage itself. Four large chess pieces serve as the differing settings throughout the show, with Review: CHESS THE MUSICAL at Perth Concert Hall some chairs and a chess board the only other props used on the small chess-board style stage. At first the setup seems minimalist, and one wonders how it can convey the differing scenes throughout the show. However, in reimagining the story (as producer Adrian Storey sought to before beginning production), the scenery was stripped back, and it very much works here. With so little on the stage, it took extra creative work to convey the themes and ideas of the show. Dann Barber doubled as costume design, and again with a fairly simple premise- all the costumes are shades of white, black, or red- the costumes help convey the changes and differences that happen as the show progresses. Lighting designer Gavan Swift also helps bring an extra dimension to the show. Shadows dance along the walls during game scenes, and it's always clear who the focus is on (even in multi layered scenes and songs), whilst the simple changes from bright to dark make it clear what the emotions of each scene are where the story may not fully describe it. Credit must also go to choreographer Freya List, who utilizes the small ensemble well to drive the show and add to the relatively small cast. The ensemble are utilised in dance pieces even when the focus is the two main players in a clever and creative way that really adds depth and intrigue in several parts of the show.

Review: CHESS THE MUSICAL at Perth Concert Hall
The full cast and ensemble

Whilst the creative work is stunning, the big-name cast is equally impressive. Natalie Bassingthwaite is an excellent and complex Florence Vassy. Bassingthwaite is well known as an actor and singer, and both sets of skills come to the fore in CHESS THE MUSICAL. Similarly, Paulini's skills as a singer and entertainer are undoubted. She has only begun performing in theatre in the last few years, but you'd have to think from this performance she has many more ahead of her. It is an absolute treat and a highlight of the night to see the two leading ladies

Review: CHESS THE MUSICAL at Perth Concert Hall
Paulini and Bassingthwaite's duet is a highlight

duet for 'I Know Him So Well,' perhaps the best known song from the show. Mark Furze plays every side of the volatile Freddie Trumper perfectly, whilst Alexander Lewis is a superb Anatoly Sergievsky. Lewis has found fame in both musicals and opera and shows off both sets of skills in this role. Multiskilled Rob Mills is an excellent Walter De Courcey, the manipulative TV producer, in another impressive role to add to his CV, and one can hardly miss Eddie Muliaumaseali'I as Molokov. His booming voice suits the conniving Molokov perfectly, whilst his singing parts were almost made for the concert hall. The Arbiter has traditionally been played by males (and has only recently expanded to be a larger part of the show), but proud First Nations woman Brittanie Shipway carries it perfectly, with her no-nonsense character the perfect foil to the other main roles as they try to push their agendas. The eight-strong ensemble are also superb here. With limited time off-stage (they spend a lot of the show off the raised stage but still very much in view), they really keep the energy up and drive the mood of the show.

CHESS THE MUSICAL is well known for its difficult-to-follow story. Director Tyran Parke has deliberately scaled it back, and whilst what remains of the Cold War allegory behind the narrative may not translate well to a contemporary audience the central drivers are still there, and the show is executed in a way that the motivations behind it are no longer important. What the show lacks in story is more than made up for by its superb staging, costumes and lighting, a brilliant orchestra (backed by an impressive choir), and that's before we even get to the powerhouse performances from the well-known leads. There are many separate parts to CHESS THE MUSICAL that would be worth seeing individually, and they are combined perfectly in this unmissable show.

CHESS THE MUSICAL is at the Perth Concert Hall until June 5th before moving to Brisbane for June 8th through 10th. Tickets and more at Chess The Musical Australia.

All photos thanks to Jeff Busby.

From This Author - David Bravos

I sit in the small field of miners who enjoy theatre. My love began when The Phantom of the Opera toured, and I dragged my new girlfriend along. Interest in one show became an interest in many, as the... (read more about this author)

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