'Chess': Theater Review

Courtesy of Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
From left: Tim Howar, Cedric Neal and Michael Ball in 'Chess'
Mamma Mia? Here they go again.
6/2/2018

Absent from the West End for three decades, the Cold War musical conceived by Tim Rice with ABBA duo Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus returns in a lavish new production.

A Cold War curio that never reached the commercial heights its authors expected, Chess has finally returned to the West End for its first major London production in 32 years. Part of an ongoing series of limited-run revivals designed to replenish English National Opera's depleted finances, Laurence Connor's lavish reboot drops heavy payloads of high-tech razzle-dazzle on this problematic show, blasting through its flaws with agreeable chutzpah. As politically charged drama, the story remains flimsy and contrived. But as deluxe kitsch spectacle, this revival is consistently entertaining.

While U.K. reviews have been less than glowing so far, Chess is arguably more critic-proof today than it was 32 years ago. The nuclear superpower alliance of ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with Oscar- and Tony-winning lyricist Tim Rice, combined with the marquee appeal of West End heavyweight Michael Ball and chart-topping British pop singer Alexandra Burke, should guarantee brisk business for this compact five-week run. Largely thanks to the phenomenally successful Mamma Mia!, ABBA remains a potent cultural force, and recently made global headlines by announcing two new songs ahead of next year's digitally generated blockbuster live comeback. Growing media debate about a "new Cold War" with Putin's Russia may also boost interest.

Rooted in a 1984 concept album about a fraught love triangle involving rival American and Soviet chess champions, Chess premiered in London in mostly sung-through form in 1986, running for three years. A more conventional Broadway version, with an expanded book and a revised ending, opened in 1988 but lasted barely two months. A new Broadway production is now in the planning stages, which Rice hints will launch later this year.

In its essentials, this lightly reworked revival reverts to the London blueprint. Ball plays Russian chess champ Anatoly Sergievsky and Tim Howar his boorish U.S. rival Freddie Trumper. Cassidy Janson co-stars as Florence Vassy, a Hungarian-American emigre torn between the two men. A blossoming romance with Florence tempts Anatoly to defect to the West, leaving behind both his motherland and his wife Svetlana (Burke). But as chess becomes a battleground for superpower prestige, blackmail and bribery push these pawn-like players into some difficult corners.

Three decades on, despite numerous revisions, the key weaknesses in Chess remain unresolved. The book is sketchy and schematic, the characters wildly inconsistent, the central metaphor of Cold War politics as a form of chess laughably banal. The musical menu may be impressively broad, ranging from folk-pop to light opera to rock, with even a bold foray into semi-rap vocals on "One Night in Bangkok," but many of the songs feel disconnected both from the plot and from each other. In terms of dramatic coherence, emotional depth and political insight, Chess feels like the work of novices, not grandmasters.

But if you embrace its inherent absurdity, this revival does offer grand-scale spectacle and terrific ensemble work. While the production is technically billed as "semi-staged," Matt Kinley's set feels fully rendered, an exploded chessboard patchwork of illuminated rectangles augmented by towering walkways and hydraulic risers. Two giant video screens flank the stage, blasting out mirror images of each other, and bringing the feel of an arena-rock show to the Coliseum. Discreetly placed camera teams relay live close-ups of the performers during the musical numbers, while archive montages from Cold War history are used to enliven the resoundingly undramatic (but thankfully brief) chess matches: Kennedy and Castro, Reagan and Brezhnev, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race and so on.

With John Rigby conducting the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, sumptuous arrangements and robust musical set-pieces abound. Connor spices up even the lesser songs with high-energy crowd scenes featuring dozens of players: rowdy alpine revelers garbed in lederhosen, American cheerleaders in stars-and-stripes livery, Thai sex workers in shimmering silk gowns. Chess will win no prizes for subtlety or cultural sensitivity, but these effervescent pageant numbers are great mood-lifters.

A welcome comic turn in a frequently bombastic production, the light-footed ensemble number "Embassy Lament" is Gilbert and Sullivan with a dash of Monty Python. Another superb set-piece, "The Soviet Machine," is accompanied by lusty wassailing, Cossack-style dancing and rubber-limbed acrobatics. A fleeting snatch of ABBA's "Thank You for the Music," picked out on accordion, offers a wry in-joke for keen-eared listeners.

Bearded, barrel-chested and somewhat inert onstage, Ball is a stodgy choice of romantic hero. But he earns his star billing on "Where I Want to Be," a melancholy Middle European chanson that could almost be a great lost James Bond theme, and on the octave-vaulting "Anthem," which rounds off Act One on an operatic high. Janson radiates easy professionalism, finding a smooth balance between acting and singing as she covers a broad musical spectrum from tender ballads to full-blooded belters. She also maintains commendably clear diction in a production where vocals are too often swamped by overloud orchestration and muddy sound issues.

In the thinly drawn role of Svetlana, Burke's talents are initially underused. But she finally gets to shine in the second act with the bittersweet ballad "He Is a Man, He Is a Child," a latter-day addition to the score premiered in Sweden in 2002. Her stirring duet with Janson, the 1985 hit single "I Know Him So Well," is a predictable but polished highlight.

Howar is the weakest of the main vocalists, often straining hoarsely on rocky numbers while the ENO orchestra struggles to back him up with the required levels of raunchy swagger. But Cedric Neal lends alluringly warm, soulful, grainy tones to the marginal Arbiter character while Phillip Browne gives Machiavellian Soviet agent Molokov a floor-rumbling bass-baritone worthy of Paul Robeson. As a Cold War parable with apparently serious intentions, Chess is still firing blanks 30 years later. Even so, this unashamedly flashy revival is pleasingly well-stocked with weapons of mass distraction.

Venue: London Coliseum
Cast: Michael Ball, Cassidy Janson, Alexandra Burke, Tim Howar, Phillip Browne, Cedric Neal
Director: Laurence Connor
Set designer: Matt Kinley
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting designer: Patrick Woodroffe
Sound designer: Mick Potter
Video designer: Terry Scruby
Choreographer: Stephen Mear
Musical supervisor, original orchestrations and arrangements: Anders Eljas
Conductor: John Rigby

Presented by Michael Linnit, Michael Grade, ENO, in arrangement with Three Knights Limited, The Schubert Organisation Inc and Robert Fox Limited