In 1968, Jesus Christ Superstar dramatically altered the formulae previously employed within musical theatre.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the innovative creators of that first ‘rock-opera’ (in which interactive dialogue was sung rather than spoken), soon achieved even greater success with their smash-hit Evita. The rest, as they say, is musical history!

Chess The Musical only appeared on stage for the first time some eighteen years later but it remains an important example of the evolutionary progress of musical theatre.

This 1986 musical, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, of ABBA fame, has experienced several developmental processes of its own during the past two decades and the current production at Theatre On The Bay, in Cape Town, is a fine tribute to its origins. This production exudes panache and intelligent, sophisticated style.

The combination of evocative artistic design by Ilka Louw and impressive choreography by David Gouldie effectively encapsulates the complex Cold War era storyline of a romantic triangle between two players at a world chess championship and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other.

The principle characters gradually reveal their inner truths by exposing the lies and deceit of international professional game-playing, while the hard-hitting theme of the struggle for power, both personal and political, is neatly played out upon an imaginary chessboard.

Unfortunately a few technical glitches hampered the otherwise flawless opening night. A frequently imprecise revolving floor and some dubious ‘intelligent’ lighting maneuvers created unwelcome distractions, as did the fluctuating sound quality within the theatre’s upstairs balcony (I was presumably sitting in ‘economy class’.)

However, a series of fine artistic performances from the leads and ensemble alike successfully maintained the high standards set by Paul Warwick Griffin’s tightly directed production.

Virtually every member of the hard-working ensemble lays claim to prior solo work within the profession, and the end result is a remarkably disciplined team of strong, precise and beautifully harmonious choral singing and acting.

Credible character portrayals by Anne-Marie Clulow, James Borthwick and Johan Baird provide substance to the storytelling, with David Chevers giving an outstanding performance as The Arbiter.

Brennan Holder (Anatoly, the Russian chess champion) reaches new heights within rock-music territory, although his lyrical tenor voice is best showcased in the famous soliloquy Anthem, at the conclusion of Act One.

Frederick (the American Grandmaster) is well played by Cito, who recently starred in the national production of Jesus Christ Superstar. This performer is an already-established rock singer and this musical score provides an excellent platform for his powerful voice.

One of the major highlights of the evening is his unforgettable interpretation of Pity The Child in which he employs an emotional intensity that contrasts with his otherwise relaxed, albeit strong stage persona.

Leading lady, Gina Shmukler, claims avid audience attention throughout. She is a fine actress and her portrayal of Florence’s ensuing emotional confusion is believable. The story’s continuity relies heavily upon this character’s journey and Ms. Shmukler’s empathetic stage presence admirably succeeds. Her heartfelt delivery of I Know Him So Well (the most famous song in the show) sung in duet with Anne-marie Clulow is memorably poignant.

I highly recommend this fine piece of musical theatre.

Chess The Musical is on at the Theater On The Bay, in Camps Bay, Cape Town until 20 July. Call 021 438 3300 or go to Computicket to book.

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