BWW Reviews: CHESS, Cardiff New Theatre, November 3, 2010
Ever since its opening gambit as a concept album in 1984 prior to a West End staging two years later, the musical Chess has been something of an enigma. Boasting one of the finest music scores in the modern era of musical theatre (by Abba's Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson) perfectly matched by some of Tim Rice's finest lyrical craftsmanship, its problematic book prevented the show from enjoying a lengthy run in the West End and resulted in a somewhat disastrous Broadway outing, closing after just two months. But the new UK tour production currently playing at Cardiff's New Theatre thrills the ears and the eyes to such an extent as to make one wonder why this show has not entered the realms of musical theatre greatness.
The plot-line - a love triangle involving a Russian chess champion (Anatoly), an American chess champion (Freddy) and the latter's female British "second" (Florence) and set amidst the background of a world chess championship during the height of the cold war with all the political implications it involves - is perhaps a little thin and implausible, with large holes in the dramatic development of the relationship between Florence and Anatoly in particular. But in this production that hardly appears to matter - the performances are so strong they manage to overcome the shortcomings in the show's book.
The entire ensemble cast sing, act and move with elegance and panache. Daniel Koek (as Anatoly) raises the roof with his act one closer, the iconic Anthem; Poppy Tierney (as Anatoly's estranged wife, Svetlana) exudes class and sings beautifully; Helen Power is a perfectly balanced Florence - sexy, strong with the right touch of pathos to make the character believable and gain the empathy of the audience - and her vocals are quite stunning throughout, especially nailing her two big numbers (Nobody's Side and Heaven Help My Heart); and James Fox is a revelation as Freddie, owning the stage every second and delivering the most electric and magical moments of the entire evening with his performance of the song Pity The Child.
The show's production aspects are of the very highest quality. The magnificent Chess score is shown off in all its glory - with wonderful vocals from the whole cast throughout adorning Tony award-winner Sarah Travis's masterful and beautiful orchestrations for the "actor-musician" ensemble. Christopher Woods' set design, Jack James's video design and Ben Cracknell's lighting add immensely to the visual excitement of the piece. And the entire show is turned into something truly special by the directorial and choreographic genius of Craig Revel Horwood. As he did with the Watermill Theatre's inspirational staging of Martin Guerre and highly energised Spend Spend Spend and with the beautifully stylised revival of Sunset Boulevard (at the Watermill and Comedy theatre), he has created a production that is so visually stunning that the entire stage is filled with excitement and interest for every single second. His eye for detail is extraordinary. And he manages to achieve the cascading spectacle without sacrificing the subtlety of the more intimate and emotional moments.
In short, this is one of the absolute musical theatre highlights of the year and is more than worthy of gracing a West End stage should that opportunity present itself.