Saturday, October 29, 2011

Overplayed - 'Chess' at the Princess of Wales Theatre

I walked out of Chess feeling delightfully young. It had nothing to do with the cast, staging, direction or those retro tingles that a rousing chorus of One Night in Bangkok inflicts upon select souls who boogied to it at high school dances in their errant youth. I actually felt young because the rest of the audience consisted almost exclusively of men and women of a certain age; I'd put them at late 50s with a few early 60s among the throng, husbands obviously come straight from the office and their spouses wearing casual clothes and one or two pieces of expensive jewelry to give their subscription-series evening a sense of occasion.

I'm 42 with grey in my beard and I still felt positively adolescent by the end of the evening. This might explain why I wasn't one of the walkouts in the first act; I saw at least 10 people discreetly make for the exits before intermission. I might be just young enough to have the patience or simple grim curiosity to sit through a musical that manages to be verbose, complicated, overlong and overpaced, all told with a background of raunchy dancers dressed in campy chesspiece costumes (think Lady Gaga by way of an Elton John yard sale in 1976 or so).

A large segment of the older audience were probably too busy in the 80s to care about the Chess concept album and too old in 2011 to recognize the Strictly Come Dancing choreography. A few of them simply zoned out or politely stepped to the exit in a very Canadian this isn't my kind of play sort of way. Maybe they were expecting Mamma Mia, the other Abba-related evening out. And when you're expecting a singalong version of Dancing Queen and get dancers wearing gold lamé jockstraps in stylized Bangkok fleshpots, perhaps it's best to call it an early night.

But for those of us with a grudging respect for the original album and a long-standing curiosity about exactly how the hell one would successfully stage it, it was impossible to look away. It's not that the show is bad exactly, and it isn't fair to call it a train wreck. It's more like encountering a train re-imagining where somebody has decided that the passenger cars should be every colour of the rainbow and the crew should wear nothing but nylon and hooker boots and the cars should be stacked upon each other in imaginative geometric patterns rather than that old boring single-file setup. Even if the train successfully made it down the track and carried its passengers to their destinations, you'd watch it and demand to know Who thought this was a good idea...and why?

Chess has been kicking around since the album's first release in 1984. There was a long-running stage version in London's West End followed by a disastrous Broadway run and relatively few kicks at the can since then. I don't think there's been a touring version in North America since the early 90s and the show has been limited to University companies and brave small theatre groups. There's a reason for this; it's a long, complicated score that's a weird mix of Abba-inspired pop and clever riffs on operetta and chamber pieces with a libretto that ranges from droll and sarcastic to shamelessly sentimental. It runs almost 3 hours and is just begging for somebody to adjust it to work onstage.

These adjustments invariably fall flat. In plot terms, the Princess of Wales production keeps the original American/Russian cold war tensions grafted onto chess players who are busy maintaining their own demons and are not willingly dragged into being literal pawns in geopolitical games. But that which is hinted at on the album has to be spelled out onstage, stopping the action cold. The synopsis slipped into the programme runs around 1200 words and is hard to follow if you're not familiar with the original source.

This is part of what makes the piece oddly compelling - you have to stay awake to keep up with the action, making it (in musical terms, at least) unconventional and thought-provoking. It's also mutton dressed up as lamb, something that you can get away with in a pop album that knows it isn't changing the world. But to put it on stage, you can present every word and note as if it were a serious dissertation of cold-war politics and human relationships, or you can camp it up as something that might pass as pop (not rock) opera and let the characters fight their own demons while the audience has fun around the edges.

Director Craig Revel Horwood decided to try both techniques and they simply don't jibe. He's best known as a UK choreographer with street cred in London's West End and time as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, all of which contributed to keeping the action sparkly and well-populated. It doesn't help the pacing, which rushes to shove 3hrs of music and exposition into the narrative, which doesn't provide much of an emotional connection to anyone onstage. When the Russian chess champion and the Hungarian-born, American-raised former lover of the American chess champion (it's complicated) fall in love during the first 2 minutes of an 8 minute song from a cold opening, nobody cares. The plot keeps chugging while the audience wonders what they've missed.

On the whole, the Russians come off better than the Americans or Brits in this production; Tam Mutu as Champion Anatoly and Steve Varnom as Apparatchik Molokov look appropriately tortured or devious in their roles, with Varnom acting as the show's only gleeful comic relief. James Fox as the American Champion sticks to one note of misunderstood and pissy; Shona White as the Hungarian can't quite handle the softer songs between the belt-to-the-rafters ballads. It's all passable, but not memorable.

But the chorus is unforgettable, not for entirely positive reasons. The black and white chesspiece costumes are as over the top as they want to be (the knights with long tails brought out numerous horse's ass comments at intermission) but they're pointless. A cast of 20 or so could have been cut to 10 without reducing the spectacle, and do we need a generic glossy dance troupe with extensive chess costumes at all? They do play their own instruments, and I'll admit it must be one hell of a challenge to manage a violin while lying on your back in 6 inch heels during a dance number. But their effort is largely wasted; the show's band (hidden behind scrim) is synth and drum based and it overwhelms anything played onstage. The acrobatic dancing orchestra could be faking it for all we know, why make them do the work when the audience won't appreciate it?

I saw walkouts in the first act and more than a few people head off to intermission with their overcoats under their arms (and not to go for a smoke). Those who stayed for the second act managed to see how it could all gel during the last two numbers when the complicated games finally come together for a sequence where everybody gets their pound of flesh from the tortured (or opportunistic) Anatoly. There isn't a wasted step or note. It's a very long wait for the payoff, but it's almost thrilling to see that the story can get itself together, even with so many characters and double-crosses taking place at once.

Unfortunately, it simply ends there. When the house lights dropped and the cast came out for their bows, there was a wide-reaching sense of 'Huh?' throughout the house. It's either a brave ending (it does follow the story) or a mistake to deny their audience a well-explained finale. It represents everything that's wrong with the show itself; when there have been so many expository passages allegedly to keep the audience up to speed, it's jarring to have the production shrug it off suddenly.

The show isn't awful- just uneven and rushed, held together with narrative tricks that don't do it any favours. You can almost smell the flop-sweat from backstage, and it's possible that the producers have realized that, costumes and retro-vibe notwithstanding, they don't exactly have a crowd-pleaser on their hands. That might be the reason why the show's biggest hit (One Night in Bangkok) comes across as a clone of the original version, it might be the sop to an audience which will want what they know. Most of them won't be familiar with the entirety of the original show to feel the edits have denied them any riches.

You'd think somebody could fix that, which is a dangerous gambit that's resulted in numerous productions over the last 25 years or so. And as long as the original album keeps selling, somebody, invariably, will try to make it work. Again.

October 2011


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