ABBA Fans Barking Up Wrong Tree

A review of Chess the musical

Nathaniel Christopher Arthur [Peterborough, Ont.] Volume 38 Issue 7

Just about everyone and their neighbour’s dog is talking about the ABBA-themed musical Mamma Mia! Droves of enthusiasts are racing their mini-vans and SUVs from Toronto’s suburbs to take in this well-publicized musical of re-hashed ABBA tunes.

Do you love ABBA’s music? Do you love doing what everyone else is doing? Then I suggest you go and see Mamma Mia! If you are not a slave to convention, however, and if you appreciate substance over glitz and glamour, I suggest you choose the musical Chess over Mamma Mia! the next time it comes to Toronto. Chess was performed by Encore Entertainment at the Jane Mallet Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on October 10 and 11.

St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto.

After ABBA broke up in 1983, members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus collaborated with Tim Rice (writer of Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar), to write Chess. Originally released as a ‘concept’ album, it featured the hit singles “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well”.

The musical takes place in 1988 amidst the drama of the Cold War, and tells the story of two chess fiends. The American champion’s wife gets sick of his arrogance and falls in love with the Russian champion. From there, the play escalates into an intriguing series of heart-wrenching events that would make even the coolest opera buff sniffle.

Chess is dark, contrasting the campy, upbeat lyrics and flashy sets that are staples of most other Rice musicals. The entire set, including costumes and props, is black and white. Featuring a giant chessboard and twelve stools, the stage is occupied by a cast adorned in authentic-looking 1980’s formal wear. Simple and sophisticated, it filled me with a sense of nostalgia and longing.

A poster for Chess at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto.

In its recent run in Toronto, the play began with Benny Andersson’s keyboard music. Although I was disappointed that it was not Andersson himself playing, the opening score was characteristically haunting and bleak, reminiscent of “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room” and “I Let the Music Speak.”

And what would an 1980s play be without an upbeat pop tune? “One Night in Bangkok” was performed by the entire cast of seventeen with an archetypal gusto not witnessed since Cindy Lauper. The play’s choreography and energy reached its zenith during this number which was powerfully felt from my front row seat. There was nothing to suggest that I was not in the ’80s; for five minutes, I forgot the drab, spiritless ’00s with shameless abandon.

From beginning to end, Anders Balderston gave a seamless performance in the lead role of Freddie Trumper. The Russian champion, Anatoly Sergievsky, was played by Shawn Henry, a truly gifted actor who delivered a passionate performance. His every gesture and move on stage was eloquent, complementing the show’s star, Sarah Haley. Playing Florence Vassy, Haley delivered a high calibre performance worthy of Broadway. Her soulful rendition of “I Know Him So Well” made Sarah Brightman’s performances seem like cardboard muppet shows.

My only complaint is that the story was not performed as it was originally written.

The narrator, Tosha Doiron, seemed a bit rushed in describing what happened in between scenes. The original play, performed in London between 1986 – 1989, featured a score that was mostly sung. However, the writers apparently felt that this would be too confusing for North-American audiences. The play was re-written, adding in spoken dialogue, and watering down the play. The two hours were not nearly enough to demonstrate the depth and complications of the characters. This change reeks of cultural chauvinism, whereby everything, including art, is dumbed down for the supposedly Wal-Martesque North American public. Though I would have preferred to see this play in its original form, Chess remains a wonderful theatrical experience.

I am a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada who has blogged here for 20 years. I like to share my thoughts and feelings on my own online space. From 1998 until 2017 I worked as a journalist and I hope to use this website as an archive for all of my stories.