Chess – Public Reviews – Maggie Poppa

Chess – Grand Theatre, Leeds

Lyrics: Tim Rice

Music: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus

Director and Choreographer: Louise Denison

Musical Director: Jim Lunt

Reviewer: Maggie Poppa

The Public Reviews Rating:

Chess could be described as a ‘Marmite Musical’ – you will probably either love it or hate it. But what is quite evident is that whether or not this is your favourite musical, Leeds Amateur Operatic Society has another successful production on their hands.

Thirty years ago Tim Rice discussed his idea to write a musical with the background of the Cold War with his partner of previous musical hits, Andrew Lloyd Webber. However their partnership was beginning to hit the rocks and so Rice carried the idea to Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and an agreement to work together on the project was muted. Chess was originally released as a two record LP set, and the album was a Top 10 hit in the USA eighteen months before the stage production finally opened in 1986. Because of the eventual collaboration with these particular musicians from time to time the music has Abba-ish overtones but it is more operatic than many musicals and it’s this that makes it so successful.

This LAOS production is staged with a monochrome minimalist set comprising a chess board plus metal stairs and bridge, but the design works well and scenes revolve with the addition of sparse aluminium seating and sofas. Back projection successfully keeps the story rolling along and points the audience to understand where the action takes place.

Act One begins with the World Chess Championship taking place in Merano, Italy. We are introduced to the contenders – American Freddy Trumper (Alex Hogg) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Fraser Wilkinson). Trumper’s second (and lover) is Florence Vassy (Gemma Durkin) and for the Soviet team her counterpart is Alexander Molokov (Terry Ford). Politics and chess compete for centre stage and towards the end the audience understandably could find it hard to keep up with the plot.

All of the starring roles are well handled but the audience is given a real treat at the end of Act One as Fraser Wilkinson sings The Anthem, and perhaps this is the song of the night even though in Act Two there is a well delivered version of I Know Him So Well. Of particular note is the perfect diction of Jacqueline Bell who plays Svetlana Sergievskaya, the Russian chess champion’s wife. However also worthy of praise is the LAOS chorus who perform with very tight harmonies, are well disciplined and are effectively choreographed throughout.

Leeds Student Radio review

Chess by LAOS (Leeds Amateur Operatic Society) Tuesday 13th March 2012

 As a musical, Chess is an engaging mix of politics and romantic passion with the odd party number thrown in (the jazzy One Night in Bangkok).  Although the script at times is clunky, with more being told at first than shown, the many intertwining themes of this show give this talented company plenty to get their teeth into. I was particularly struck by the dancers who act out the chess moves on the stage with a controlled balletic grace, producing an effect just as powerful if subtler than the bigger singing numbers. I also enjoyed the symbolism of the ‘chess pieces’ moving the set structure whilst still in their black and white suits, subtly reminding the audience that their every move is a calculated one.  The company are justly proud of the simple but effective staging and I only wish the wheelchair seats were a bit higher so I could have better appreciated it, especially as some of the meetings between Anatoly and Florence were obscured from view.

The other strength of this show is in its’ characterisation and acting, and I was particularly impressed by Terry Ford who plays Molokov, who had the Russian accent down to a tee, thanks possibly to his recent portrayal of Tevye in LAOS’ last production Fiddler on the Roof. The action was so fast-paced at times and the accents (American as well as Russian, though Gemma Durkin, understandably, did not attempt Hungarian) so thick that some of the lyrics were lost, although symbolically this functioned to make Nobody’s Side more effective; the audience were gripped just to keep track of the narrative!  

I preferred the scenes in which the pace slowed down and allowed you to really appreciate the powerful and seamless orchestra, particularly in the Act 1 closer Anthem, where Fraser Wilkinson drew a captivated silence, Anatoly’s sincere patriotism palpable through his soaring yet effortlessly operatic vocals.

 I also liked Someone Else’s Story where Jacqueline Bell ‘s careworn yet passionate portrayal brought the behind-the-scenes partner centre-stage. Gemma Durkin proved her credentials in LAOS’ earlier production The King and I but Jacqueline I will definitely look out for.  I Know Him So Well evoked the same dilemma as Ellen and Kim face in the similarly-timed Boublil and Schonberg hit Miss Saigon – a future show for LAOS perhaps? They have once again proven themselves ‘triple threats’ in musical theatre and I urge you to ‘check’ this out, mate!