When I was in high school the mother of my best friend, Sandra, was obsessed with the musical Chess, with music by ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice. She'd bought the concept album when it first came out in 1984, and eventually in 1986, on one of her frequent trips to England (where she is originally from), she saw the stage version in London's West End. Whenever I was over at Sandra's house, which was quite often, it wouldn't take much effort to convince Mrs. Hirons to play the record for us; mostly I just wanted to hear "One Night in Bangkok," which Murray Head, who sang the role of The American (later named Freddie Trumper in the musical), had turned into a big radio hit. But the entire score gradually lodged itself into my brain, to the point that I remember being very upset when the musical's Broadway transfer, following a very popular if critically mixed reception in London, turned out to be a flop.
So when I heard that the musical was being revived by the English National Opera at their plush West End home, the London Colosseum, and that it's run would coincide with my trip, well naturally I booked a ticket. I should have saved myself the money. Granted, both the plot and politics of Chess are hardly subtle, but this production screams insistently for attention in such crassly obvious (and overproduced) ways, and also misses a huge opportunity to update the work's Cold War themes for today's renewed US-Russia tensions in the era of Trump (hello Freddie!) and Putin.
Taking inspiration from the famous Bobbie Fischer-Boris Spassky World Chess Match in 1972, which at the time was seen as no less an important confrontation between the world's two superpowers than the space race, Chess, the musical, opens with the defending world champion, the American Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar), being challenged for his title by the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball), who has left his wife, Svetlana (Alexandra Burke), and his young son back in Russia. Freddie is accompanied by his manager, Florence Vassy (Cassidy Jansan) and Anatoly has a threatening minder named Molokov (Philip Browne). Suffice to say that things don't go well for the bombastic and showboating Freddie. When Anatoly quickly gains the upper hand in their matches, he accuses the Russian of cheating. Florence tries to mediate between the two men, which kindles a spark for her in Anatoly, especially when he learns her father was arrested by the Soviets when they invaded Hungary in 1956. Act 1 concludes with Anatoly defeating Freddie, Freddie immediately announcing his retirement, and Anatoly defecting to England with the help of Florence. Act 2 opens a year later, where Anatoly is now defending his title in Bangkok against a new Russian challenger. Freddie is covering the proceedings for the television media and the tension revolves around whether or not Anatoly will throw the match, as the Soviets are blackmailing him by playing on his love for both Svetlana and Florence. Anatoly's decision is satisfyingly surprising, as is the musical's eschewing of a traditional happy ending.
Unfortunately, the ENO production buries this moment of quiet heartbreak in its overall ethos of elaborate spectacle. Director Laurence Connor takes very seriously the rock opera bona fides of this work (which, admittedly, conductor John Rigby handles with aplomb). There are lights, lots and lots of lights; there is an elaborate system of moving stage machinery; there's a chorus line of dancers who look like they're moonlighting from a Madonna or Beyoncé concert (the choreography is by Stephen Mear); and, most intrusively, there are two huge walls of jagged video screens, on which are projected the close-up images of the lead characters in mid-belt via a series of live feeds. And do these folks ever belt. In number after number, the guiding principle seems to be bigger and louder. And while everyone is in fine voice, especially Jansan and Burke as Florence and Svetlana, it all felt rather wearying to have the songs delivered in the same deafening power-ballad vein.
Even more confusing to me was the apparent political cluelessness of this production. It unfolds as if the falling of the Berlin Wall never happened and in avoiding any references to our current geopolitical situation casts the Soviet regime as a cartoon version of Reagan's "evil empire." On top of this, the "One Night in Bangkok" number that opens Act 2 is in its Las Vegas style razzle dazzle a riot of Orientalist fantasy, trading in every possible visual stereotype of Asia, and not that I could tell in an ironic manner. Even more egregiously, especially given the recent conversations that were had when Miss Saigon was revived on Broadway, this production uses yellowface, with many of the white chorines sporting black bobs as they shimmy and shake in front of Howar's Freddie.
I doubt that such a move would pass muster in New York, where another revival of the musical is apparently planned for later this year. We'll see how that production handles this work's manifold contradictions. Hopefully it will be in a far more complex way than this one.