At its core, Walterdale Theatre’s Chess is a story told through instrumental sound and a harmony of voices. With 313 pages of song—75 percent singing to 25 percent speaking—the epic love and politics of its book scenes serve almost as mere context to the grandiose music that propels the play.
Following two politically opposed chess masters who meet to compete for the world championship during the height of the Cold War, then find themselves battling it out in a love triangle, the play creates a cocktail of romance, genius and global issues—all told through music from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyrics by Tim Rice.
In addition to its international themes and viciously clever characters, it was the script’s elaborate and expansive musical score that drew director Kristen Finlay to the piece and challenged her methods of directing it.
“Unlike other traditional musicals where it just becomes an expression of emotion, the songs are actually telling the story—they’re a conversation or an argument—so you have to find a way to stage that song because it can’t just be about stopping and being in love,” she says. “There’s a journey in every song.”
The actors are singing storytellers, with lyrics that are complex in both sound and meaning, but which also require some creativity to produce on a slighter scale. While Broadway’s version was written for a 25 piece orchestra, the Walterdale production’s music director Sally Hunt has created an inspired combo on a comparatively smaller stage with six band members and an ensemble of voices to replace the sounds of missing instruments. Not only is the live accompaniment set to fill the cozy theatre with majestic melodies, but it breaks the fourth wall by welcoming audiences to revel in the musicality of their surroundings from the outset.
“I don’t like to hide my bands,” Finlay notes. “I always have them pretty visible because I believe in not hiding the fact that we’re doing a play and we’re telling a story. I think there’s something so cool about having that music being live right in front of you and knowing it’s a musical.”
In chess, just like the game of life, players become pawns due to the influence of outside forces. The play itself is no exception, using emotional music to move the audience into sympathizing with its characters.
“I think the music is going to break [the audience’s] hearts in a good way,” Finlay says. “Sometimes you don’t get what you want out of life, but it’s the trying that becomes the important thing, and sometimes you just can’t control it all. But really, you do this show because you love the music.”
Until Sun, Jul 16 (8 pm; 2 pm Sunday matinees)
Directed by Kristen Finlay
Walterdale Theatre, $12 – $18