Thoughts on Chess the Musical 2021

I’m quite familiar with Chess the musical. While I’m by no means an expert, I have watched it enough times that I feel like I have a good grasp of the characters and overall story. I should disclaim, I have only seen the recording of Chess in Concert, taped at the Royal Albert Hall in London in May 2008, starring Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Josh Groban.

Seeing one of your favourite musicals live is always tricky, because very rarely can live up to your high expectations. So overall, I’m in two minds about the 2021 production, currently playing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne (until Saturday, April 24), before heading to Adelaide (May 27-29), Perth (June 3-5) and Brisbane (June 8-10). Ticket info is available here.

The biggest issue for me was how shortening/removing some of the songs ruined a lot of the character developments and relationships. (to note, I haven’t done any research and am simply going off the version I know, however, the website stats that the running time is 3 hours including a 20-minute interval, yet, it finished 30 minutes earlier than expected.) Other scenes were added to try and make the plot make more sense, but do little to help and are overall pointless. Even I, who have seen this production more times that I can remember, was confused at times.

Also, just no, no, no to calling Anatoly a jerk instead of a liar during Chess Game #3.

Probably the most major issue to mention is how Frederick Thumper’s (Mark Furze) alcohol addiction made him feel like a completely different character all together. Yes, he had lost everything, but his biggest issue was his arrogance. He would have never let himself ruin his reputation by becoming a drunk, as he sings in One In Bangkok“Thank god I’m only watching the game, controlling it.” He wasn’t, but that is his arrogance to losing the title. Instead of admitting how the loss hurt, he spins it around to sound like he’s glad he lost.

However, Chess is a musical that is open to interpretation, and there is a million different ways you could read into Pity The Child, but in my personal opinion, Chess, he always took seriously – even when he was playing the fool – he was still serious about the game. In this version, he seemed to take Chess as a joke, even though he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is without being serious about the game. After all, one doesn’t master the game without a lot of study.

Another issue is the cutting out of a lot of scenes between Frederick and Florence Vassy (Natalie Bassingthwaighte), as we don’t get a good sense of their relationship early on – in fact, we barely understand it at all – so her cuddling up with Anatoly Sergievsky (Alexander Lewis) seems sudden and unexpected. Chess in Concert displays a clearer picture of the relationship between Freddie and Florence, as well as establishing her underlying feelings towards Anatoly.

This is most obvious in Mountain Duet as Bassingthwaighte seemed unaware of the significance of the song. It’s by all accounts the musical’s most romantic song, and yet Florence couldn’t get away from Anatoly fast enough, looking back at him with confusion and disgust. They’re meant to be seemingly standoffish, wary, and a little flirty before both succumbing to their hidden romantic desires — “I don’t know why I can’t think of anything I would rather do than be wasting my time on mountains with you.” Again, interpretation, this is all my own.

Overall, I can’t say the production was terrible as there was a lot I liked, however, some of the performers were horribly miscast. I like Rob Mills as a performer, but his version of Walter De Courcey seemed out of place and time – like he’d been plucked from the 1980s and dropped into a tale of international conflict during the 1940s. I momentarily forgot what musical I was watching, and thought either Link Larkin or Corny Collins from Hairspray had entered the stage. Also, his only stage direction seemed to be to keep tugging on his sleeves to show his confidence and dominance.  

Lewis, while I personally think he should have played Anatoly as a little more charismatic in his delivery, I thought he best understood his character out of the main cast. Anatoly is such a complex character and it takes a talented actor to pull off the role, which Lewis, in my opinion, does. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Alexander Molokov is also a good fit and right-hand man to Lewis — and what a voice!

It is known that due to COVID-19, the production only had a short rehearsal schedule, and in some way that shows. With time, I think the actors would better understand the complexities of their characters. While I think both Bassingthwaighte and Furze did a fine job, they could be better. Given the minimal stage too, more attention give to stage direction would also help. During Pity The Child, it was clear that Furze didn’t know what to do. It was better when he was seated, because it felt like he was just singing the song as an actor and not as the character when he was wandering around going from one set piece to another.  

Bassingthwaighte hit some obvious bung notes in the beginning and I doubted she had the voice to pull off such a demanding vocal role, but she redeemed herself with a stirring rendition of Anthem among others. Employing a stronger singer would have been ideal, but considering few would be familiar with the musical as well as the sudden popularity of the game of Chess, her name, as well as Mills and Paulini, are draw cards.

Speaking of Paulini (Svetlana Sergievskaya), what an absolute star (yet underutilised, but there’s her character) One unfamiliar with her character or the story may be confused as to who she is when she just appears without introduction during act 1 – well, that’s the notion I got while waiting in line for the bathroom and had a group of ladies ask me who she was, before adding how the musical isn’t as good as the Netflix series, The Queens Gambit.

The game of Chess here is actually a metaphor about the politics of the situation, between right and wrong, good and bad, the soviets and the Americans. It’s about the characters themselves being moved and manipulated by the machinations of their governments, and was written as a commentary on the Cold War, the time in which the musical is set. Again, like I say, Chess is complex and there’s a lot you can read into it.

The synopsis, according to the official website: Set during the height of the Cold War, two of the world’s greatest chess players, one American, one Russian, find themselves pawns of their own governments’ sparring in the turbulent East-West political arena. As the game climaxes and stakes rise, Florence Vassey, a Hungarian-born refugee finds herself caught in the hurricane between the two grandmasters, in a triangle of power and love.

Here, I feel the story has been too truncated and thus, doesn’t fully work. If you’re familiar with the production, you’ll be disappointed and if you’re unfamiliar, you’ll probably be confused. It’s sadly one of the few productions I would not recommend, especially given the high price of ticket admission. However, those uninterested with following along with the plot, should at least enjoy the musical numbers by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (ABBA), book and lyrics by Tim Rice.

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