Craig Revel Horwood’s exciting production of Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Björn Ulvaeus’ CHESS will go to the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto in September/October 2011.
The show is currently touring the UK, after which the show moves to Italy, where it currently completes its run. Rumours of the show moving to London’s West End remain just that for now, whilst the producers look for a suitable theatre.
The precise dates for Toronto are not yet set but expect an announcement very shortly. Broadway World has already picked up on the news and also mentions the West End.
Richard Ouzounian, Theatre Critic for the Toronto Star saw the current production in Wolverhampton and wrote the following review:
They’ve finally learned how to play Chess!
Only 26 years after the first concept recording of the musical by Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, along comes a production which finally manages to deliver this troubled work successfully to the stage.
And where did I find it? In the Midlands industrial town of Wolverhampton.
This only shows you the lengths to which a devoted fan of this show will go in search of a satisfying production.
Because, from the very beginning of its existence, this show has vexed some of the greatest directors in the world in their attempts to get it onto the stage. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Piece of cake. Try Chess.
The show that I saw only happened to be in Wolverhampton for a few days that coincided with my British visit. It’s a very sleek, glitzy product which will tour Britain into the spring. After that, the theatre gods willing, it might even stop in Toronto for a spell.
The driving force behind the show is one of the hottest names in British musical theatre at the moment: Craig Revel Horwood. He became famous as a wryly acerbic judge for seven seasons of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (which North America ripped off as Dancing With the Stars).
Australian-born Horwood began his career as a drag queen, then became a dancer and a choreographer before making the move into directing. He recently grabbed headlines around the world when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that, thanks to the successful revival of Sunset Boulevard that Horwood had recently staged, he was the ideal man to do the next production of the Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies. (No truth to the rumour it will begin with electrodes being held to the Phantom’s chest while medics holler “Clear!”)
Chess is the only major work of Horwood’s I have seen, but gosh, is he a clever cookie! And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. He has looked at the show and figured out how to make it work, when other eminences like Trevor Nunn have failed.
Michael Bennett, in fact, was the originally announced director of the project, but the onset of the AIDS that would end his life forced him to step down. At the time, the black joke around showbiz circles was “Some people will do anything to avoid directing Chess.”
Why is the show so problematic? Part of it lies in its very nature.
It’s ostensibly a kind of intellectual thriller about Soviet/Western struggles during the the Cold War. Only instead of fighting about bombs or oil, the struggle takes place over a chess tournament. Two tournaments, to be precise.
But there’s also a stirring love story at its heart, about the American chess player, his Hungarian girlfriend and how she leaves him for the married Russian champion. Biographers would have a field day relating this plot to Rice’s own personal life with his extramarital mistress of many years, Elaine Page, who played the role both in the concept album and the original London production.
So try tying those two stories together, especially with one of all those all-knowing, all-seeing, all-singing choruses that Rice and Lloyd Webber loved so much commenting on all the action.
How do you stage it? Bennett was going to go all technological, Nunn treated it like a typical megamusical and in its most recent production, Eric Schaeffer at Washington, D.C.’s Signature Theatre rearranged the songs, cut a lot of the ensemble/political stuff and went for a naturalistic love story.
As Rice said in an interview with the Telegraph two years ago “It’s been a free-for-all with every director who’s done it all over the world. I’ve seen some versions where I haven’t a clue what’s going on. The good thing is that every five minutes a cracking song comes up.”
And maybe that’s why so many of the attempts to revive it have been in concert — just stand and deliver. The most recent in 2008 at the Albert Hall featured Idina Menzel and Josh Groban, who may have sounded lovely, but just picture them trying to act together.
Now you see the problems, which will help you appreciate even more the brilliant way that Horwood has solved them.
To begin with, he realizes that Chess (both the show and the activity that inspired it) is a game. There is a certain artifice at play. Yes, people recreate the strategies of medieval warfare on a checkered playing board, but no one gets hurt or killed. Usually.
That leads us to the next thing in Horwood’s corner. Time. Rice always called Chess “his cold war musical” and insisted that the Soviet-Western conflict was uppermost in his mind.
But now there is no more cold war and guess what? Rice’s vision is more easily accepted now that it is universal. His lyrics for “Anthem” declaim that:
“Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart/ My land’s only borders lie around my heart.”
And now we’re able to see them for the broader statement of the personal vs. the political that they were always meant to be.
Horwood’s major stroke of genius is to realize that there doesn’t have to be one unifying way of staging Chess. It’s like those damned Russian nesting dolls that stack inside each other, each one disclosing a similar, but different, image.
He frames the whole evening as a kind of grotesque circus, with his ensemble in black and white outfits that nod more than occasionally in the direction of bondage gear.
They also play almost all of the music heard in the show. It’s not used the way John Doyle did in Company or Sweeney Todd, where this became an organic part of the action, but it’s more It’s like Adam Brazier’s use of them in his recent Dora Award-winning Assassins: as a sly way of padding out the orchestral sound while increasing the sense of presentational theatre.
Alienation effect? Brecht would have been in heaven.
Horwood uses all of the latest LED technology to create stunning pictures, but they always underline the action instead of overwhelming it. And the central feature of his set is a plain platform, on which the show’s passionate love story can take place.
To hear this talented cast — but in particular James Fox’s American chess master and Shona White’s Hungarian mistress — tear into those great songs like “Pity the Child” and “Heaven Help My Heart,” while surrounded by a physical production that is edgy and thrilling is really to know the best of both worlds.
Chess. It’s not a stalemate any more. Bring it to Toronto.