Princess of Wales Theatre
(Sept 24 to Oct 30)
*** / 5
I first learned about Chess: The Musical in high school and since then, the music has always been the element that has fascinated me. I never even knew what the story was about until college. That familiar “Bangkok” music, in my opinion, is what is creating the buzz and appeal for the current Chess: The Musical tour, which started in the U.K., and is on its last leg in Toronto’s Princess of Wales theatre from September 24th to October 30th.
I had the opportunity to be at the very first performance in Toronto this past weekend at the 24th matinee performance. I have never been to an opening of a touring musical before, so I was not sure what to expect. I sensed that the performers were perhaps tired and uneasy. Remember, many of them have been on this tour for almost 2 years now. I also noticed something that I do not see often, people “leaving the theatre”. There could be many reasons for this, but after skimming the reviews on the theatre’s website, it seems a lot were not impressed with the choreography and/or did not quite understand the story.
Chess: The Musical is a story that you will enjoy if some homework is done before attending. The story itself is based on the legendary Bobbie Fischer and Anatoly Karpov rivalry during the 70s. Elements from their true story were used liberally in the musical. There is also much swearing that takes place. Yet, what can you expect when you go back to a time when the Cold War is still going strong, and that the two Chess contenders are American and Russian? You have a very harsh and vulgar atmosphere no matter how you look at it. As for the choreography, the producer/choreographer did something very unique that can also be somewhat risqué. Each of the performers who play chess pieces is also part of the orchestra. Only the keyboardist and drummer are in the pit. This is cute and can be smart, however because there are so many of them on the stage at all times, many of the actual singers/performers are not always seen. I was seated off center, and struggled to see them about more than half the time.
Having said this, I will say that the producer of the show knew that the true fans who’d be attending the show came to see music and lights. And this production has no lack of music and lights. I especially want to give kudos to the actor who plays The Arbiter – David Erik. That gaze, that chest, and the flowing coat. A truly visual performance he gave along with all the strobe lights for his big number. I hated that I could never really see him whenever he went back to his position behind the chess table. You definitely do want to be closest to the center to see this show or you may miss something.
I also need to give a hand to Tam Mutu who embodies Anatoly Sergievsky (the Russian) and Rebecca Lock who plays Svetlana Sergievsky. Tam’s voice and the beautiful mane of hair made his presence felt from no matter where he was on stage. Tam’s rendition of Anthem made you hear a pin drop during the long pause when the band stops. I think I even saw a few people stand to applaud after Anthem. Rebecca’s Heaven Help My Heart was another song that made the theatre silent. It is a shame those who left after intermission missed her song.
It pains me to say it, but I was somewhat disappointed with the performances of James Fox (The American) and Shona White (Florence). During the entire production, I felt like James was distracted and not giving his all. During One Night In Bangkok, he even missed the start of a chorus. I know, I know, first show pains in a new venue, but they have done this song so many times, or at least you would think they have. During Pity the Child, I have no basis to compare or if this is how the song is performed, but he seemed to have his eyes closed during the majority of the song even while playing his guitar solo. Maybe he forgot some parts, and closing his eyes helped? I really can’t say, but very distracted he seemed.
Florence sings the majority of my favorite songs in this show, so I was very excited to hear the performer who plays her. However, it seemed like she was using her voice to emote more than her body. There was a lot of belting that seemed rather unnecessary. Her voice is amazing, do not get me wrong, but she did not have to yell as much as she did. I don’t know if she is a natural blonde, but the hair color and voice put together made me think of Cyndi Lauper for some reason.
I am sure that as the run progresses, the gaffs will go away, but if you are a true Chess: The Musical fan like me, you do not want to miss this production. It combines elements from both the original and other versions of the production in one, and adds a few new arrangements and ideas to keep it fresh. If I had the money and the time, I would definitely try and see it one more time.