Chess – the musical

James and I saw Chess – The Musical at Sydney’s Theatre Royal on Friday 9 May. Not being from Sydney, it wasn’t until we arrived at the theatre that we realised it was an amateur production (by the Balmain Light Opera Company) – which surprised us in such a large and prestigious theatre.

Among the singers Leighton Watts as Molokov and Patricio Ulloa as Anatoly, both with deep voices, were excellent. Female leads Lucy Boocock as Florence and, in a smaller role, Sarah Hyland as Svetlana were also easy on the ear. Ed Stiener’s voice was not big enough for the role of Freddie and the required American accent injected some harsh tones into the upper register of his voice. Charlie Voyagis was okay as the Arbiter but, again, lost tone on some high notes.

The ensemble singing in the big production numbers was good and sounded choral, but the orchestra sounded tinny at times. Some orchestral crescendi were mistimed with the clash of cymbals, etc., too far behind the top volume of the vocal line. The dancing was OK, but — amateur.

Some aspects of the production were simply farcical, especially the seemingly recycled backdrops. The backdrop for the scene in Merano, Italy, was clearly a depiction of Montmartre. The backdrop for "One night in Bangkok" showed Indian architecture, not Thai, and the ‘Thai’ temple was decorated by a large and very Chinese dragon. Mobile phones were an anachronism. The selection of costumes for the chorus was very odd. Cowboys?

In her review Beverley Kennedy comments that Chess is "an extremely difficult piece of theatre to mount and that "kudos must be given to the Balmain Light Opera Company for its brave—if overly ambitious—production."

She finds many points to commend in BLOC’s production. "A minimal set and neat costume design were paramount to the focus remaining on the actors and their interpretation of the music and the songs. The direction too was smooth and enhanced the music as the centre of this particular piece."

In the first-night performance Ms Kennedy also saw some flaws, such as missed lighting cues and some "abysmal" tuning in the orchestra. These seemed to have been ironed out by the time James and I saw the show on the second night. But Ms Forbes is right when she concludes that "being in a venue such as the Theatre Royal, there is an expectation that a production should be of a professional standard, and while it was clear that every effort was made, it fell short on too many counts for it to work in such an unforgiving and demanding space."

The price of almost $70 was cheaper that what a fully staged professional production might cost, but too much for what was delivered.