Writer VARIETY Chess report
February 14,1990

Revamped Chess boffo in Sydney

Sydney Nearly four years after it opened in London, the Tim Rice-Benny Andersson-Bjorn Ulvaeus musical "Chess" had its Australian preem Feb. 3 at Sydney's refurbished Theater Royal, opening with an advance of $A2.5-million.

Aussie production coincides with the mounting of a U.S. touring production, but lyricist Tim Rice, currently in Sydney, says the productions are vastly different. Aussie version has been reworked extensively by Rice and director Jim Sharman, who have abandoned the alterations made for the disastrous Broadway production and returned to the 1984 recorded version.

Story's timespan has been condensed and the locale changed to just a few days during one world chess championship in Bangkok. The $A3-million Australian version has had a troubled evolution, with the rights tossed around until Adelaide producer Kevin Earle secured the right to stage "Chess" Down Under. His original plan, to open the show in Melbourne in August 1989, was abandoned when he could not raise the capital. At that point the Theater Royal's director Frederick Gibson, looking for a splashy show to open the theater after its planned $A4.5-million refurbishment, came up with financing arrangements, and the production was put together for Sydney.

Earie died suddenly last November, and associate producer Ruth Yeatman took on a bigger role in the management.

Creatively the show did not suffer, and the result is world-class. But unlike recent reproductions such as "Cats," "Les Miserables," "42nd Street" and "Big River," "Chess" has not been restaged by the London or American director.

All-Aussie creative team is headed by director Sharman and designer Brian Thomson, both of whom were responsible for Australian and London versions of "Jesus Christ Supetstar" and "Rocky Horror Show." Thomson, this country's busiest and arguably best theater designer, has devised for this "Chess" an awe-inspiring set that is a star in its own right.

Performances by Robbie Krupski as the Russian, Jodie Gillies as Florence Vassy and Maria Mercedes as the Russian's wife are superior. TV and straight theater actor John Wood makes an amusing musical debut as Soviet strategist Molokov.

Drawbacks are a chorus largely under-utilized by Sharman, and costumes by Tess Schofield that are unflattering and appear to restrict movement.

Sydney reviewers have lavished praise on the production values, and on Krupski particularly, while finding the "Chess" storyline short on intrigue. Despite updated references to glasnost, there have been mutterings about the relevance of such a plot and its suitability to the musical form.

Ticket sales since opening have "gone through the roof," per Yeatman, and predictions are for an engagement of one year. With Helen Montagu's "42nd Street" currently being relaunched to give it new steam, and Hayden Prods. "Anything Goes" returning for a second Sydney run, the scene is set for some interesting competition. — Debbie Kruger

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