Since it was released as a concept album in 1984, “Chess” by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus has been through more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. The latest, getting a run in Toronto prior to a stop on the West End, is helmed by Craig Revel Horwood with a lot of panache, a healthy dose of over-the-top theatricality and a steady stream of actor-musicians driving the engine. He succeeds in making the show two things it has never really been before: semi-coherent and consistently entertaining.
In all of its versions, a temperamental American chess champ (Trumper) plays against an idealistic Russian (Sergievsky). The cities they play in, who wins and loses and why it all happens has changed in every draft.
The current version starts in Merano, Italy, in 1979 and ends in Bangkok a year later. Along the way, there’s a convoluted system of political intrigues, some dating as far back as the Hungarian revolution in 1956, and a fair bit of talk about media manipulation.
But what has always sold the story and sells it here is the central saga of a married man (Sergievsky) who gives up his family and country for the mistress (Vassy) of his opponent (Trumper).
Shona White, who plays the mistress role, has a wonderful ability to fling herself into emotional ballads. When the big numbers like “Heaven Help My Heart,” “Anthem,” “Pity the Child” and “I Know Him So Well” come, Horwood is clever enough to keep the stage still and let the powerhouse performers nail the tunes.
But during the attenuated sequences of recitative and narration he pulls out all the stops, with chess pieces seemingly dressed by Victoria’s Secret and choreography that reveals how you can bump and grind while playing a violin.
Depending on your frame of mind, you’ll call it superbly theatrical or slightly cheesy. It definitely does play to the British “more is more” school of musical staging. (Production has already had a successful tour of the U.K.)
There’s much to enjoy in Horwood’s over-decoration of the show, which takes its baroque concepts right into rococo. The hit tune “One Night in Bangkok” pulls out all the stops — if you’ve never seen a pole-dancing, trumpet-playing monk before, you will here.
But when all is said and done, it’s the emotional solidity of the four leads (White, Tam Mutu, James Fox and Rebecca Lock) that make you feel by the end of the second act that you’ve had a satisfying evening. Mutu in particular is a real winner, with a clarion call of a voice, the right kind of rumpled good looks and the intensity that could lead revolutions.
As for the rest, Horwood’s production is a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.