29 May 2003 - Stockholm
Sweden has given the world many things, for example: The Nobel Prize, Ikea and ABBA. Only the last is significant to this posting.
ABBA weren't just pretty faces, you know. Two of them also wrote the songs: Benny Andersson and Bj¢¼rn Ulvaeus. And before Paul McCartney wrote oratarios or Elton John wrote movie soundtracks, Benny and Bj¢¼rn, with the help of Tim Rice, wrote a musical called Chess.
I tend to get nostalgic when I hear music from Chess. It was the first musical I really liked through and through, although I must admit I was attracted to it because of it's links with the game. I was a bit of a chess geek back then.
The first and only time I watched it was when I was fifteen. It was a short three-show run at the Old Fire Station in Oxford and I persuaded my housemaster to make it a house trip. I enjoyed it thoroughly then. I really, really liked it, got the full album, heard all the songs. Then I got the American version of the cast recording which had a few new songs in it, and liked them too.
Because it's not considered to be in the same league as Les Miserables, Cats or even My Fair Lady, it's not a popular musical to put on and there has not been a long-running version of it other than it's initial release, although it seems to get a lot of tours.
They also put on one-off presentations, like the one being produced in Stockholm until the end of May. I would have taken my mother to watch it, but it's performed in Swedish, and I didn't think she would have enjoyed sitting through two and a half hours of people warbling in a foreign language if it wasn't opera. I don't even know if she'd
through it if it was an opera.
But, because it's been fifteen years since I last saw it, and because it's probably going to be another fifteen years before I get another chance to see it again, I went ahead, bought a ticket for SEK475 (slightly less than RM200) and resigned myself to remembering the English lyrics (which at one point in my mis-spent youth I completely
memorised, although age has a way of remedying follies like that).
What now follows is a review of the Stockholm production of Chess as performed on the night of 29 May 2003. Those of you who have not seen the musical, or are not familiar with the plot or music and will never want to be, I suggest you skip right on ahead to the next article - the following paragraphs will be painful to you.
To summarise the basic plot: Two players compete for the World Chess Championship and for heart of a woman during the height of the Cold War. One is Anatoli, a Russian with a frustrated marriage to his wife, Svetlana, and tired of his current life. The other is Freddie, a brash, arrogant American (I'll cut the snides about there being no
such other type) who is a brilliant genius, but spoilt to the bone. The only reason he manages to keep it up is due to the efforts of Florence, his assistant and general PA. Anatoly beats an over-confident Freddie in the first game, and Florence is exasperated with Freddie's viotile character. While cooling off in a bar after arguing
with him, she meets Anatoli, and there is an attraction between them. Anatoli wants to defect to the West with his new squeeze, but Molotov, Anatoli's politburo minder, suspects this and tries to foil him. All this builds up to the climax of the deciding game of the Championship that will decide who gets to wear the crown and win the
This production as a whole is thoroughly well done, especially the performances in the lead roles and the overall production values, but key changes in the tone of the plot jar with me a little.
What amazes me about this musical is the way whole-sale changes are made each time it is newly staged. The original West End version, to me, best balances Anatoli's conflict between love for a woman and duty to his country, and Freddie's attempts to redeem himself. The Broadway version (based on what I hear in the cast recording)
focusses on Freddy, while this Stockholm version most definitely is about Anatoli's affair with Florence and how it clashes with the family that he has back home.
To be honest, I don't really like the changes. I preferred it when both men were fighting for both Florence and the Championship. Florence's talents as a chess expert and game advisor is now non-existant and there's really no reason for Freddie to want her other than because he doesn't want anyone else to have her. The new version reduces Freddie's role so much that he is just a caricature of all things bad about Americans. His solo "Pity the Child" is now more of a tantrum than a plea for help and I think the story suffers for it.
I really would like to see a production that stresses the parallels between playing a chess game and the players trying to win Florence's hand. But maybe that's too obvious, and that's why I write reviews instead of directing musicals.
Apart from that one thing (which I think is a pretty big thing!), everything else about the performance was very good. The singing throughout, especially of Florence and Anatoli, is right on the mark. There are several new variations on delivery: The most famous song of the whole musical, "One Night in Bangkok" is now just background
nightclub music (the whole tournament is played in Merano now, instead of being split between it and Bangkok); the Arbiter's performance is more cloying than authoratative - a conscious, change, I'm afraid; and my favourite song in the whole musical, "I Know Him So Well", which was originally a heart-felt plea, is now a catfight between Florence and Svetlana. These all work well to keep the musical fresh, although the Arbiter's take on things doesn't reallly work well with me.
The other pieces which are played more or less as they were in the original are still pretty well done. "The Deal" between Freddie and Anatoli is especially good, and the conflict presented there is certainly better than when they are facing each other over the chess board. (Incidentally, yes, they really seem to be playing a game, but
from where I was sitting, I couldn't really follow the moves after the first few. If anybody knows what they were, I'd be happy to know!)
The set as a whole is as you would expect from Sweden - modern and spartan - with some elaborate props. The use of squares and black and
white are ever-present, as with just about every production of this musical, I'm sure.
There are also other novelties. For example, the Arbiter floats eerily over the game as it is in progress. More impressively, trapeze artists perform while Anatoli and Florence discuss their impossible love affair, although I have no idea how one relates to another (all that stretching and touching might be semi-erotic, I guess). Another
impressive point is how the entire chequered background, with practically the whole cast mounted on it, moves out and around the players as they play their final game. Never mind the creaking as it moves forward, it's still a pretty impressive idea.
All in all, did I enjoy myself? Yes, without knowing a single word of Swedish. Maybe key elements of the plot were explained in the dialogue, which would have made the changes more satisfactory, but never mind - I still left the theatre humming tunes in the key of Chess.
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