I have been quiet for so long it has taken a bit of an effort to sit down here, in megan’s head again. I am up in Jozi for some work and I went to see Chess last night which is on at Peter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre. I need to say at the outset that I was pulled in two very distinct directions. I am not a great fan of musicals (weird when you consider how many of them I end up making!) and also, Gina Shmukler, who plays the lead Florence Vassy, is my sister-in-law! So I was very excited and also nervous.
It was my first time at Montecasino and at least you don’t have to walk through the casino to get to the theatre; it’s plonked on the side for easier access. I don’t know, but in Jozi the idea of a multi-entertainment centre actually works. And people go.
we sat in the second row from the back but the theatre is small enough for that to be absolutely fine and you can still see the expressions on everybody’s faces. The only problem was that it was a bit of a dead spot for sound, ridiculous in a theatre that size. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my only criticism of the whole shebang.
I am not going to go into a whole explanation of the show’s history and story here, suffice to say that it is about the tension between America and Russia expressed through chess! It is set in around 1973 at the height of the cold war. So, weird subject matter for a strange little musical.
Apparently director and adapter Paul Warwick Griffin sat with writer Tim Rice and they basically cut out most of the book for this production, making it accessible and interesting and very quirky.
I’ll start with raving about Paul Warwick Griffin as a director. He had a brilliant vision and set about creating it. He drew amazing performances from almost everybody, created a brilliant ensemble, pulled together a simple but totally effective set and awesome lighting. Then, Louis Zurnamer did a superb job with the musical direction. It was my first time at hearing a lot of the music but I found it completely accessible and enjoyable.
Cito (from Wonderboom) plays Frederick Trumper and Brennan Holder plays Anatoly Sergievsky and both are excellent in totally different ways. Cito is a raw and dynamic talent, unselfconscious and magnetic and very, very exciting. Brennan is technically magnificent with a crystal voice and sensitive, considered timing. They work so well as counterpoints. James Borthwick is delightful as the head of the Russian delegation and everyone else in the cast is really remarkably good. The only person I felt could have given us a bit more was Johan Baird who plays the head of the American delegation. But it is Gina Shmukler who radiates through this production. she is on stage for most of the show. Her voice is incredible, with a huge range and complexity, but it is her acting that sets her apart. She manages the almost impossible task of making musical acting not only convincing but absolutely moving. I have very seldom seen a performer so connected to her character in the simplest way, where every gesture reads and every note is understood. I was blown away by her. It is a difficult role both in character and plot, yet her journey was …. I have run out of superlatives.
I felt like I had been given an amazing gift after last night’s show. I am still thinking about it today. The good news is that it is coming to Slaap Stad in June, to my not favourite Theatre on The Bay. But I’ll be going again, and I never see shows twice.