Chess Tour to go to Toronto prior to possible West End transfer

Images from the current UK CHESS TourCraig 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.

Related links

Toronto Star review
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto


  • This is great news. Interestingly I saw an interview with Andrew lioyd Webber where he said Love never dies was going to Toronto before Broadway, it must be the in place to try out musicals at the moment,
    And its a very good review except to say there is no cold war is going a bit far as there is very little cold war difference between Chess in concert and Craig Revel Horwood version , Idina Menzel and Josh Groban acting was also very good.

  • Going to see the UK Touring production for the second time, this time in Birmingham on Saturday 12th. Looking forward to hearing and seeing this amazing score once again. Next time – London West End (fingers crossed!).


  • “The good thing is that every five minutes a cracking song comes up.”

    And that’s why this musical will never die, no matter how “troubled” it has historically been. The music is just jaw-droppingly awesome!

  • Hi

    I saw Chess at the Hippodrome in Birmingham last night. it was brilliant, and the theatre packed out. There was a really good atmosphere.

    Having seen this in 1986 twice, this is the first time i’ve seen it since. So, there’s a couple of musical numbers in there i ididn’t know. What is great about it now is you can actually follow the plot. The actors in the leading roles are fantastic.

  • Saw the show this week enjoyed it thought the leading actors were very good cant say i was that impressed with the guy who played Freddie ( James Fox ) he sang Pity the Child well but his acting was wooden and i struggled to hear what he was saying , apart from that great night out !!

  • Seen this amazing show twice now. In Edinburgh last year and Birmingham on Saturday 12 feb. Absolutely loved it both times and I’m contemplating booking gor Glasgow in April as I can’t bear the thought of not seeing it again for another 20 years if I doesn’t go to the west end. Please transfer to west end!!!

    Shona White ad Florence Vassey was by far my favourite although I also loved Daniel Koek as Anatoly. I truly felt the emotion especially in the final reprise of You and I. ‘Stories like ours have happy endings…’ so sad!!

    Love CRH choreography – brilliant.

    WEST END please!!!!

  • This is such fantastic news. I don’t think Toronto has ever known a full-scale production of CHESS, which is particularly surprising when you consider that Toronto was used as the North American launching pad for Mamma Mia!

    I’m excited to see this, though I’m less than excited about the “grotesque circus” and the “outfits that nod more than occasionally in the direction of bondage gear”. Perhaps they’ll tone down that stuff for us prudish Canadians…

    Also, @Michael Salkeld, I think the author meant that since the Cold War is no longer happening in real life, the patriotic stuff like “Anthem” becomes more universal and less specific to the Cold War itself. I don’t think he was suggesting that they took it out of the plot — on the contrary, I think he was suggesting that it makes the plot easier to identify with.

  • Saw this show at Birmingham on Saturday. Absolutely brilliant, I hope it goes to the West End. All the leads were very good however, I felt the star of the show was James Fox his portrayal of Freddie Trumper was magnificent. I was in tears with his rendition of Pity The Child . Looking forward to seeing it in Bristol. Well done everyone!

  • I saw Chess last week in Brum, and i was very impressed,

    Shona White was simply magnificent powerful, strong and yet oh so sweet when called upon to be so vocally and I cannot fault her acting. also Daniel Koek has a great operatic baritone voice, Anthem sent shivers down my spine.

    However in parts i did found it hard to understand the dialogue!
    Mumbler in chief is James Fox, he sings Pity the Child well in element with his guitar singing the angst ridden number, but his acting is woodenly hammy and in this company he is out of his depth.

  • Hooray!!! I just saw on the what’s on stage web site Chess won best regional production.

  • Well done to everyone in the production on the Whats On Stage Regional Production Award,

  • Excellent article about the show!

    I think for another national view point about this current production in Toronto, read the Globe and Mail’s:

    Or for one that more closely mirrors mine:

    I saw this production on Wed night and I was sorely disappointed. I was so eager to see the show live on stage, and had also read the Toronto Star review (although the fact that Mr. Ouzounian gave Rock of Ages 4/4 raving stars ought to have tipped me off), that I went in excited, happy and open to seeing the modern take of this show. After all, if Trevor Nunn couldn’t kill it off on Broadway with his tinkering and faltering, then the score and complex underlying plot stand on their own.

    What Craig Revel Horwood – self-appointed deus ex machina / ex-drag queen / current UK dance reality show judge (those last two really informed his sensibility) – brought to us is a schlocky, gaudy, tacky, Black and White Rave meets Gay Leather Ball whose biggest crime is to turn his desire to create visual bling bling that competed every step of the way with the score and the narrative to the point of incomprehension. I sat in 2nd row centre and is familiar with both the story and songs, and yet I could barely make out what most of the cast were singing/saying besides the only electrifying member Tam Mutu as Anatoly (more later).

    The stage was often crowded when intricate story line was being played out, with unnecessary peacock-strutting choreography by chorus members that distracted from the central characters trying to deliver Tim Rice’s dazzingly complex lyrics. When the Arbiter shows up – complete with open-chested leather coat and two-tone facial hair – looking like he’s about to tie you up and crack his riding crop on your behind, even a gay man (which I am) wants to stand up and shout “Enough with the stereotypes!!” Besides, I won’t even understand or hear him well on first try with his weak voice and mumbling. More importantly, I can sense audiences around me, those who aren’t familiar with the show, seemed confused or bewildered. Some did not return after the first act.

    Only in the second act, after “The Soviet Machine” that Horwood’s unrelenting interference and tackiness seems to back off to let the clarity of the story and simpler staging shine through. It’s as if he got tired on his his accord and just allowed the show to take centre stage finally. That’s when the production begins to truly come through. But that’s small comfort and too-little-too-late redemption for what should have and could have been.

    The only person in the cast that stood head and shoulder above everyone else, and who was the only person whose voice, diction and acting rose above Horwood’s blinding shclock, was Tam Mutu’s Anatoly. His intensity and vocal prowess could be felt throughout the entire theatre. And to stand apart from Horwood’s distractions is no small feat!

    The other three delivered solid performances. However, they often suffered from being drowned out by themselves, by their director’s competing visuals, and by the failure of expectations. James Fox is actually quite good on his own if he would take diction lessons to pronunciate. Most of the time it’s hard to hear what he was singing and saying (remember, I sat 2nd row centre from the stage). He is very sexy and seductive, and does play a rather thankless role.

    The other two ladies were good. But with years of seeing all singers and actresses giving a shot at the songs that live on forever on YouTube, they mainly fail in being able to live up to that (I don’t necessarily blame them). And on top of everything, when you have sexy male leads, these two make it look like they are romancing their best friends’ mothers. It just isn’t believable that these men have the affection of a frumpy Florence who doesn’t stand apart other than being an above-average generic stage actress sort of way. It definitely seems Horwood paid more attention to the attractiveness of his male characters than his female ones.

    For those who are not familiar with Chess’s narrative, I suggest watching the Royal Albert Hall CHESS concert first to get a hang on the story before going to see this current production. It will give an idea what it could potentially achieve if someone didn’t come along to muck it all up with his grandiose ideas of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert meets John Doyle. Despite the well sung but miscast Idina Menzel, the CHESS concert remains the more definitive version of the show.

    Despite what I wrote here, I am still going back. I have tickets for this Sunday. I figure at least this time I know what I expect and perhaps can filter out Horwood’s bling. However, I feel the need to warn friends who are eagerly anticipating this show also but are mostly only familiar with the elegantly minimal concert staging from Royal Albert Hall. I know them enough to have to prevent some from walking out with a disclaimer.

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