Just me talking about costume-y kind of stuff
This was my third time to see a production of Chess. I saw it once at ACTF back in the 80's and again in El Paso at the UTEP Dinner Theatre where many of my fellow students were cast in the show. I bought the cast album after "One Night In Bangkok" aired on MTV with Murray Head. Lest we forget what that was like, here it is.
Needless to say, the earlier productions I saw were college shows with mere students for singers and a Texas fine arts budget line. I never saw a professional production of Chess back when it was new, but this re-boot version was amazing. I was surprised to see how timely and relevant it still is to our world situation today. And I had completely forgotten that the American's name is Trumper. Ha!
The other thing I didn't know until after I started doing some research for this blog is that this show has undergone many script changes since the concept album, which is probably why I felt that this version was so timely and relevant, because it had just been updated for this revival. I had no idea that the two productions I had seen in America in the late 80's/early 90's were different from the concept album, different from the original production in the West End and would also be different from the revised version I am now telling you about. It's amazing how much the authors have changed the show and are continuing to change it. Another newly revised version opened at the Kennedy Center earlier this year. In the 30+ years since the concept album, the authors have moved songs around, cut them, wrote new ones, and gave old songs to different characters, and that's just what they did to the music. They also completely changed plot elements like where the chess match is played, how many chess matches are played, who wins the chess match, what country of origin characters were from, gave Svetlana a dad that's either alive or dead, captured or free, and added or deleted a CIA agent who's either undercover or not. I don't know how anyone keeps up with this. If you're really interested in the difference between all the versions, here's this Wikipedia article that explains it all for you.
We were on the third balcony, but there were so many things staged on ladders, plus with the tons of projections, we had a great view. As you can see the orchestra was on a platform near the top of the set, which was at our eye level. If you scroll down there's a photo that shows the view of the theatre from the stage and you can see how high up we were, because it doesn't really look like it from this photo.
I was totally blown away by this production, both directorially and technically. Let's discuss the performance aspects first. Freddy Trumper, the American, was played by Canadian lead singer of Mike + the Mechanics, Tim Howar. He was perfect. The Russian was played by Michael Ball, who you may remember as Marius in Les Miserables or as one incarnation of The Phantom, after Michael Crawford. They were both great. Amazing voices. Benny and Bjorn (and Tim Rice) did such a great job of typifying a country's culture, especially ours in America. During the opening ceremony, this staging included a gigantic Uncle Sam on stilts, cheerleaders tumbling and making pyramids, male twirlers with batons, the whole news circus with ads, and Freddy's name on everything. That's definitely the US now. Perhaps it was always that way and I was too young to get it or the previous productions didn't put such a fine point on it.
The choreography by Stephen Mear, was amazing as well. As already mentioned, there was tumbling, twirling, and stilts in Act One. Act Two just raised the stakes. In "One Night in Bangkok" the ensemble did martial arts, aerial work on silks, and twirled fire! Finally the meaning of the lyrics "the queens we use would not excite you" was staged correctly with both boys and girls being the "pearls" referred to in the "golden cloisters".
The scenery/lighting/projections literally stole the show. The UTEP dinner theatre production had done the light up chess board floor back in the 80's and at the time I thought that was amazing. This production took it to a whole 'nother level by literally scattering the chess board squares all over the stage and then using them to project onto. The whole show was being filmed and fed live to the screens above the stage which made it seem like you were watching it on ESPN or Fox News, depending on the scene.
Christina Cunningham was the costume designer. I found her website, which I've linked to below, but can't find a photo of her anywhere. The costumes for the ensemble were my favorite part of her design. Everytime they came out in a different costume I was amazed. I wish there had been more about the costumes in the program or online. I wish I had more photos to show you of all the great costumes, especially from the opening ceremony, but alas, I don't. If they put out a DVD of this production, I will definitely buy it.
The original recording
If you haven't seen this show, here's the entire album, assuming I did this correctly, in a series of 18 videos. The music is really good.
I found out from the website, linked to below, that you can get a backstage tour of the theatre. It's more than 100 years old! And it's been newly restored to its original Edwardian aesthetic.
English National Opera
The London Coliseum is the home of the English National Opera. In fact, this production of Chess was the fourth collaboration of ENO with the GradeLinnit theatre company to produce a musical. The company of opera singers made up half of the Chess ensemble. I didn't figure any of that out until after we got back to the hotel and I had a chance to read the $5 program. Again, that's in pounds. But these signs were hanging in the toilets (no one says bathrooms over there) because clearly ENO has a sense that "regular" people are afraid of opera and are trying to change their misconceptions about it.
It was only a half a mile walk to get to the theatre from our hotel. That day I totalled 23,244 steps. Things we did before we saw the show: Went to Trafalgar Square, looked at awesome paintings in the National Gallery, took the tube to Hyde Park Station so we could walk through Hyde Park and see the Peter Pan statue. We also took a side trip to Harod's in which I met a real life Doorman and took his photo for Sylvan. Sylvan wants to be a doorman when he grows up. It was his Halloween costume two years ago. Sylvan was disappointed that the Harod's Doorman's uniform didn't have gold epaulettes. And before the show we ate at Nando's.
We went to dinner at Nando's first, which I highly recommend, not only because their PERi-PERi chicken is to die for, but because you get ice in your drink, free refills, and it's right by the theatre. We are still so very tired, but not too tired to take silly photos with the Cheeky Nando's rooster, who's name is Barci, short for Barcelos.
Peter Pan Statue in Hyde Park