David Zampatti checked out the staged concert version of the Benny and Björn/ Tim Rice rock opera Chess at the Perth Concert Hall and found it a chequered experience.
Chess, Perth Symphony Orchestra and StoreyBoard Entertainment ·
Perth Concert Hall, 4 June 2021 ·
Chess, that ancient game of murder and strategic resistance, pops up regularly in literature and popular culture; it’s scattered through Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot, English rock band Yes made a hit of it with “Your Move” and, last year’s The Queen’s Gambit became Netflix’s most-watched miniseries ever.
Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’s 1986 monster rock musical Chess parlays the cut and thrust of the board game into the Cold War antics of the USA and USSR. Unlike The Queen’s Gambit, though, there’s precious room for psychological depth or character development in Chess; it’s pretty much grandmaster meets girl, grandmaster loses girl, while various baddies and not-so-baddies sing and dance around them.
But that’s okay; it’s the singing, dancing and playing we come for, and this production, from the Melbourne-based production company StoreyBoard Entertainment and the Perth Symphony Orchestra, while a stripped-down staging of the original, throws plenty of them all at us.
The cast of 15 principals and ensemble, a 24-strong orchestra combining classical and rock players and a 60-voice choir of students from the WA Academy or Performing Arts certainly punch the tunes out. Freya List’s crafty choreography delivers perfectly satisfying colour and movement from limited resources, and when all the production’s musical forces are belting it out together, it’s an impressive effect.
But there are shortcomings and problems. To begin with, it’s not the greatest score – only the punchy Act Two opener “One Night in Bangkok” and the showstopper duet “I Know Him So Well” (the Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson version from the concept album that preceded the stage production is one of the biggest-selling duets of all time) are well-known. On top of that, there’s an awful lot of secco recitative (sung dialogue) throughout – far more than any show of its kind I’m aware of – and that highlights how complicated and often clumsy Rice’s storyline is. And when the amplified vocal sound is not perfect – and this, I’m afraid, isn’t the first time this has been an issue in the concert hall, despite its beautiful “unplugged” acoustics – it’s hard to follow the comings and goings on stage and connect to its unfamiliar material.
It’s also a real test of the quality of the voices, and there, too, the production often fell short, despite the notable resumés of the performers. Natalie Bassingthwaighte, as the central character Florence, seemed to struggle for clarity and consistency, especially coming down from high points in her solos, and Mark Furze, as the fallen American champion Trumper, had some incomprehensible moments, most notably in the interminable cri de coeur “Pity The Child” . Although, to be fair, I rushed to YouTube to listen to the original by Murray Head – it should never be loosed on an unsuspecting audience… pity the singer.
The other principals, Alexander Lewis as the Russian world champion Sergievsky, Brittanie Shipway as The Arbiter (essentially the narrator), Rob Mills as the shifty promoter Walter and Eddie Muliaumaseali’l as the Russian apparatchik Molokov all suffered to greater or lesser degrees from the same sound problems.
None of them, though, could dim the glowing performance of Paulini, whose Svetlana, Sergievsky’s abandoned wife, stole the show. Her rich, honeyed voice and striking presence made “Someone Else’s Story” (with its shades of Rice and Lloyd Webber’s “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”) instantly knowable and persuasive, and she took Bassingthwaighte along with her on a very fine “I Know Him So Well”.
The vocalist’s amplification issues weren’t replicated in the Perth Symphony Orchestra’s sound, though its rock components may have been a little more prominent than the musical director David Piper intended. The conductor, Craig Dalton, and his musicians maintained faultless tempo through some intricate passages (those familiar with the rhythmic eccentricities of “One Night in Bangkok” will understand). The choir’s pitch and enthusiasm was also impressive even if, as is often the case in stagings like this, its sound was somewhat muted.
If the vocal sound issue is sorted for the short season’s remaining performances there’ll be plenty to enjoy in this production, despite the material’s shortcomings – and I’m sure the talent on show will have a much better time of it as well.
Disclaimer: Perth Symphony Orchestra CEO Bourby Webster is a contributor to Seesaw Magazine.
Pictured top: Rob Mills and ensemble in “Chess” . Photo: Jeff Busby
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