Now, you may recall that last week we took a visit to see one of my all-time favourite musicals, Chess, and that it was not an entirely enjoyable experience as our upper circle seats were most definitely ‘restricted’ although not sold as such. The show was fantastic, as I expected, so I took a very rare decision to pay for a more expensive ticket, and revisit the show to see what I was missing.
I’ll talk a bit about pricing at the end of this piece.
The difference between viewing the show from a seat in the upper circle, row J, in the central block, and a seat in the dress circle, row E, at the side, is like night and day. In the case of this production of Chess, the effect is like watching a completely different show from a design point of view.
Just look at the difference here; last week’s view first, then last night’s view.
The ENO’s annual musical has become a big event of limited runs: we have had Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel, and now Chess. These are generally big productions with star names, and for the last two years, they have been fully staged. None of these were ‘new’ musicals to me, and in fact all have been long-time favourites, and Chess is no exception.
I talked a bit about the casting for Chess last week. Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball has been cast as the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky. Rock singer and musical star from Canada, Tim Howar, is the American champion, Freddie Trumper (an unfortunate surname right now with the current President). Actress/singer Cassidy Janson, who has led in small musicals and covered in larger ones, is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s second and girlfriend of seven years. X Factor winner turned musical belter Alexandra Burke is Svetlana Sergievska, the wife of Anatoly and mother of their son Ivan. Phillip Browne is the Russian second, Molokov, a KGB operative and a sinister bass. Cedric Neal comes from Broadway and a leading role in Motown the Musical to portray The Arbiter, the judge and referee of the Chess Federation tournaments we see.
In the last post I referred to the casting drama during rehearsals which saw Neal brought in at short notice to take over the role (hard on the voice, but underwritten). There was an additional event which affected the first preview, when Tim Howar’s wife gave birth to their son Hamish during Act One, which meant the understudy had to take on Act Two (including the big solo number, Pity The Child, and some tricky moments of recitative). There have also been reports of Michael Ball missing some lines in the Endgame number which has all the principals together for the last time, but no such problem was present last night (although his “Frederick, thank you” in the close of The Deal/No Deal number has now switched to “Freddie”).
So what’s ‘new’ if you are in the lower levels?
First off, there is a platform which comes up during key scenes, and this is located in the pit, where the orchestra is usually based. Honestly, from the upper circle last week I had no clue this was even there, nor did I realise that some of the chess board set design was made up of steps which allowed some characters to exit quickly or for technicians to nip under the stage to set up the next scene or the video projections.
Second, without a clear view of the front of the stage you miss around half of the choreography of The Soviet Machine, roughly a third of One Night in Bangkok, and you are unable to see the chorus behind the screen in The Story of Chess, or the chorus based under the platform during the chess games. This does a great disservice to the hard working singers and dancers who deliver the layered melodies and high energy movement the ensemble numbers require.
This time I hardly glanced at the video projections (which are sometimes mirror images of the same scene in close-up, but sometimes seem to be there just so you can see what is going on – for example, in Burke’s two solo numbers, in Janson’s two solo numbers, and -with some synch problems last night – for Howar’s big Act Two number). I found them distracting in the major duets I Know Him So Well and Mountain Duet, as that by definition requires two people to be shown, and the screens seemed superfluous.
In other places they are used well – the plane arrival in Merano, the fire-breathing dragons in One Night in Bangkok in front of which acrobats and aerial contortionists perform, the chess games (although, rather than 1960s headlines about the space race, it might be fun to show us the actual moves, assuming they are not just random!), and the explanatory pictures about the history of the game and former champions.
Last night I could watch close-up, on the stage itself, what was going on.
I still can’t find any emotional engagement with Svetlana – she appears briefly early on in the show, and then we don’t see her again until the end of Act One, in which we are supposed to empathise with her delivery of Someone Else’s Story. This song was written for the character of Florence (in the original Broadway production), and still makes more sense, as she finds one relationship collapsing as another begins.
Neither female character is fully drawn, but I find Florence an interesting one. She is Hungarian-born and living in the US, with a self-centred lover who treats her as an accessory, although she’s fiery in support for him when we first see them. Why she’s stayed so long, and why she suddenly bails to join with a refugee from a country she hates, is not explored sufficiently, nor the reasons this Russian leaves his family for a new life in the West. Janson seems to make Florence fluffy in love by the time we get to Heaven Help My Heart, which makes the You and I duet between her and Anatoly bittersweet by its conclusion. Perhaps the implication is that Freddie’s drinking and coke sniffing had made him less exciting between the sheets than the focused Russian!
Svetlana has another song which opens Act Two, a translation of the Swedish production’s song He Is A Man, He Is A Child, which is a towering ballad for a character we don’t really know. But without those two songs, it isn’t much of a part, regardless of the engagement the audience would have with her. Burke does well enough and is very good indeed in Endgame, and she’s a hard woman to return to, for sure.
Michael Ball probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for Anatoly, but with his spectacles and air of concentrated ennui, he does convince – and the songs, Where I Want To Be, Anthem, and the duets previously mentioned, are delivered well, without too much of the vibrato that has characterised his recent collaborations with Alfie Boe. Hopefully we will see him in some more mature musical roles as time progresses. Anatoly, though, is a difficult proposition for any actor – he appears emotionless, he hates the West and everything Freddie Trumper represents, then beats him in the championship and steals his girl. It’s to the credit of the writers and the actor that we still feel some connection with him, and don’t dismiss him as a selfish sot.
Freddie is another conundrum – clearly focused on the game of chess, but highly-strung and feted (and behaving) like a rock star, from the moment he touches down in Merano. His songs range from massive power force fields like Pity The Child to cynical rap in One Night in Bangkok. He throws things around and hurts people who get close to him; he is by no means the confident front he puts on. It’s a tough part because it isn’t the one which gets the natural audience sympathy, but he’s always been my favourite character in Chess, and he’s pitched just right in this, with a redemption arc in The Deal/No Deal which might, despite Florence’s pointed look during the TV interview which opens Endgame, lead to some form of reconciliation for them.
The ensemble numbers are absolutely fine, and well done, and from close-up they were very enjoyable. The orchestra from the ENO is conducted by John Rigby, and musical director is Anders Eljas, who has been involved with the musical since square one, doing the original orchestrations, and what a glorious sound they make. As for the ensemble, let’s have a shout out for the pop choir trio Jordan Lee Davies, Sinead Lang and Alexandra Waite-Roberts, and associate choreographer Jo Morris, although all are excellent.
I mentioned the pricing. The upper circle pricing is £65-80, and the dress circle will cost you over £100 for a ticket. I hear that there are rush tickets for £25 through TodayTix for weekday performances, so this would seem to be the future of such shows – eye-watering prices for committed fans, and cheap tickets for casual ones. I find this a worrying trend as a theatre obsessive, and one who nearly always puts hand in pocket for pre-discount prices. If I visited a show on a cheap ticket or a comp, I would tell you. It’s a rare occurrence, but if you are in the happy position to not have to plan your visits to a show until the day itself, it’s an option to play the discount lotteries.
Chess continues for another three weeks.