Sunday, September 23, 2018

Chess på svenska

Please note: Svenska Teatern invited me to see their production of Chess for free.

This is the autumn many Finnish musical fans have been waiting for! Finally, we have Finland's very first staged production of Chess the musical – the matter-of-factly called Chess på svenska ("Chess in Swedish"), produced by Svenska Teatern, Finland's Swedish-speaking national stage.

Alexander Lycke as Anatoly and Maria Ylipää as Florence

Chess is an 80s musical by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. It uses a world championship game of chess as a metaphor for Cold War, which, in turn, it contrasts with romantic relationships. It's one of those musicals the creative team cannot stop tweaking. There have been at least four different major editions of the script since the 1986 premiere, so going in, you never quite know who's winning and who's losing... The script Svenska Teatern uses was adapted by Lars Rudolfsson and premiered in Stockholm in 2002, and in Helsinki, it's directed by Maria Sid.

I'll admit it right away that when it comes to the plot (or plots) of this musical, I'm no expert. I know the basics – it's the US versus USSR... – but I don't have a grasp of the variations of each specific version. To be quite honest, I've always found the synopses for most versions, with their secret agents and murky politic deals, a bit too complicated and dense for my tastes.

Chess på svenska takes things to the other extreme. This version is not about politics at all. Instead, it's a tragic little love triangle with some international intrigue as a backdrop, taking place within the span of only four days. American chess champion Freddie and his second Florence are a couple and the Russian champion Anatoly has his wife Svetlana waiting for him back in Moscow, but things take quite a turn when Florence and Anatoly meet each other...

I'm not saying focusing on the romance is necessarily a bad thing. I've said it before that I'm not into romance at all unless everyone involved gets their heart broken by the end, so this is actually right up my alley!

I think Chess på svenska is a lovely, very bittersweet love story. I'm a big fan of the movie Titanic, and this story is rather similar. An unlikely couple only gets to spend a few days together, but that's enough for them to fall in love, and then a cruel twist of fate tears them apart.

The chess tournament, taking place in a remote Italian town, is a liminal space of sorts. For four consecutive days, the characters are removed from their everyday realities and brought to a faraway place where, for a brief moment, it seems like anything can happen. The characters don't get happy endings, but the experience forces them to see their whole life from a different perspective and to take a different path than the one they've been following previously.

I think that's a very interesting scenario. The rushed love story in Chess hardly feels realistic, but at the same time, who's to say it couldn't happen?

Chess på svenska is way too heavy on ballads (there's like five of them in a row in the second act) and it sort of feels like they've included some of the most famous songs because they're so famous you cannot not include them (neither Anthem nor I Know Him So Well feel all that plot-relevant here, really). Maybe some other edition of the script would have a smoother flow and be more interesting to watch.

But for what it is, this version of Chess is musical theatre of the very first class.

Silva Lillrank as the Arbiter

I'll list my favourite things about this production at the end of this post, but first, I want to talk about gender for a while. One of the selling points of this production, you see, is that the role of the Arbiter is played by a woman, Silva Lillrank.

I've always loved the character of the Arbiter, the no-nonsense referee of the chess championship. I like characters like that, ones that you don't really get a hold of. Being a chess arbiter must be the least exciting job imaginable, and yet, this character sings one of the catchiest and most upbeat songs in the whole show. He (or she, or they?) arrives from out of the blue, lays down the law and soon finds out no one listened – there's no character arc or resolution, but the song kicks butt and gives the audience a nice breather before the intense chess match.

Over the years, the Arbiter has been interpreted in countless weird ways, including a bearded space warrior and a pair of twins. Considering that, it's more sad than anything that a woman playing the role in a major production is still newsworthy in 2018... The important thing, though, is that Lillrank is fantastic in the role. The Arbiter's song (here, sung and performed all by women) is one of the highlights of the whole production. I can't help it, it feels so good seeing fellow women taking on a leading position onstage and delivering a kickass song!

In an interview with Musikaalimatkassa, the musical podcast I co-host (in Finnish), director Maria Sid mentions that she thought about making one of the chess players a woman too. Ultimately, she decided that since it's the first time Chess has ever been staged in Finland, she doesn't yet want to change too much. I hope someday, someone does. I think any of these characters could be any of us, and therefore they could be of any gender, too. I believe it would give the story an interesting spin if it were, say, Avrora Sergievskaya falling in love with Florence...

And now, the highlights list.

  • There's not a single detail here that hasn't been thoroughly thought out by director Maria Sid. You might not agree with all of her choices, but you can feel she has a well-founded reason for each one.
  • Maria Ylipää as Florence, period. First and foremost, this production is Florence's story, and Ylipää's performance feels so natural. She quite simply fits the role perfectly.
  • Anthem, sung by Alexander Lycke (a long-time favourite of mine, of Les Mis and Jesus Christ Superstar fame). Heck, I don't care if the song's a bit shoehorned in here – this is such a powerful rendition it already made me tear up during an open rehearsal the theatre hosted before the premiere. This can't be done any better.
  • I feel for Freddie, performed by Glenn Edell! He's very fun to watch, until suddenly, he's very much not. A tough, annoying guy who's secretly all sad inside, what's not to like?
  • Johanna Ström (Svetlana) has such a gorgeous voice, I really can't describe it. Shame Svetlana is such a small role!
  • The second act features some really beautiful choreography for Florence and Anatoly. I'm no expert when it comes to dancing, but Carl Knif's whole choreography feels very well-thought-out and fresh.
  • Overall, it's a really, really beautiful production. If the ballads sometimes feel a bit too much, you can always zone out and simply enjoy the visuals for a moment.
  • The music, the music, the music!! Music-wise, Chess has always been one of my top three favourite musicals. I can't get enough of the tunes (seriously – listening to a Chess cast recording as I write these very words), and I'm sure I'll be seeing the show again and again just to enjoy them. It's all sung and played so well and the acoustics and sound system in Svenska Teatern compliment it perfectly, it's heaven in my ears.
  • I like how all the characters feel very three-dimensional and, for a lack of a better word, adult. I think that makes the love stories more interesting. No fairytale musical romances like Cosette and Marius's or Christine and Raoul's here! Instead, you have dark undertones and a big range of emotions, I love that.

All in all, it's been a long while since I last felt this excited, this good about a Finnish musical production. Long live well-crafted musical theatre!

Photos by Cata Portin.
P.S. Ny Tid's Janne Wass said it all so much better than I ever could. Read his thorough review (in Swedish).

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