Steady on, it’s just Chess

Image: Time Out

The musical Chess came out of the theatrical womb a golden oldie.

It’s Benny and Bjorn penned score was almost too 80’s for the 80’s.

But at the time even the Boomers and Gen X could agree it’s camp entertainment value was irresistible.

It’s initial concept album followed the Andrew Lloyd Webber playbook, went multi-platinum and spawned a raft of hit singles.

But while Chess clearly always aspired to be a pop-cultural phenomenon, an Evita or a Les Miserables, it’s stage career has been littered with disappointment.

It’s Tim Rice book has had more editions than The Great Gatsby.

To this day, there’s nary a version to disguise the story being told was never very good.

Even so, its tracklist remains fresh to the memory and its hooklines hummable, so on occasion it gets a revival and the faithful queue dutifully at the box office.

Melbourne’s post-lockdown revival at the Regent theatre could kindly be described as this type of nostalgia trip.

And to it’s credit, it sold out months in advance.

Natalie Bassingthwaite and Rob Mills are to hand calling up the turn of the century pop sensibility Chess demands at age 35.

This purpose aside, their casting makes little actual sense.

Mills is under-used while a raft of available music theatre and pop divas could have sung Nat Bass under the table.

Alexander Lewis has been cast solely because he sings the money notes of Act One showstopper “Anthem” well.

It’s possibly the only moment in the production where “craft” is sloughed off in favour of camp excess, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Paulini chows into her song “Someone Else’s Story” hobbled by a mystifying Russian accent.

Tyran Parke’s direction suffers the misapprehension this is a serious, dramatic piece.

The blocking and the choreography by contrast are pointless busy work. Ditto the set.

The sound design butchers the score. The Regent’s accoustics do not help.

Until Lewis’ vocal explosion in “Anthem”, the only real power to be found is in the inappropriate outbursts of the horn section.

A little less time spent in earnest consideration of what it all meant and a few more rehearsals and this production might have been a fun, camp night out.

As it stands, too much time is spent navigating flat notes (“Merano” – disastrous), vaudevillian accents and baffling staging choices.

Clearly it’s time producers started to think of Chess artistically as a concept album, a song cycle.

This production proves, once again, that really is the only format Chess has ever warmed to.

Never mind. There’s plenty more revivals where this came from.