Director Kristen Finlay displayed some chutzpah in her selection of Chess for the Walterdale Theatre’s final play of the season. With veteran lyricist Tim Rice and memorable musicians Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus behind the music and lyrics of Chess, the play may seem a feat for any off-Broadway production.
(Having auditioned for the play myself but not been successful, I can say from experience that the songs are challenging due to vocal range and diction required to imitate the variety of accents.)
The musical first premiered in Britain, but was Americanized for Broadway in 1988. The Walterdale has taken on the later American version.
While both the British and American versions are centred on a politically tense chess tournament between American Freddie Trumper (Matt Boisvert) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Todd Hauck) during the Cold War, the later American version opens with a history of Freddie’s second, Florence Vassy (Lauren Pearson), whose story of love and loss since childhood carries the soul of the performance.
From fights to flirtations and bonding to betrayal, the conflict is both individual and international—and almost always expressed in song. The play’s sheer volume of music demands powerful voices, and while Pearson’s singing shines with quality of tone, the solos from her and her companions are sometimes subdued in the crowded theatre. However, the ensemble makes for a medley of unrestrained sound, especially during the famed number “One Night in Bangkok.”
Another highlight is the small band positioned in black at the back. Dimly lit but always on point, their instruments offer a heightened sense of urgency and entertainment depending on the scene and the song. Violinists Ken Heise and Grace Huang are big on the drama while electric guitarist Tim Maskell adds some funk to the tunes.
The love scenes between Florence and Anatoly lack a proper build up, and suffer from a certain cheese-factor as a result. However, the singing is skilled.
In the end, it’s the emotions from Florence and Svetlana—Anatoly’s estranged wife (Kate Wylie)—that seems the most real. Despite loving the same man, the duo sings a devastating duet that features the most impressive singing and acting skills of the play.
With an ambitious musical score and passionate renditions of each song from its actors, the Walterdale Theatre’s production of Chess has certainly ended the season on a note of joy and love for musical theatre.