Review: Chess The Musical (Mirvish)

Chess The Musical, now playing at Mirvish’s Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, was written in the mid 80s and is set in 1979 when the Cold War was still raging. The book and lyrics are by Tim Rice and the music is by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.

I first saw Chess The Musical produced in Guelph at least 10 years ago and what I remembered about it is that the music was great and the story was weak – even for a musical. Tonight I saw the show with my son-in-law and fellow Mooney on Theatre writer, John Bourke. He played Freddy Trumper in the Guelph production I saw all those years ago. This review owes a lot to his input.

It’s hard to care about the story, chess is pretty boring if you don’t play – and maybe even if you do – the Cold War is really old news – who cares? – and the protagonists are not appealing people.

So how do you transform it into a truly enjoyable night of theatre? You focus on the music and throw everything you can at it. Fabulous singers who can act – or actors who can sing? Yes. Talented dancers – who can sing, dance and play an instrument at the same time? Yes. Glitzy costumes? Yes. Live video? Yes. Does it work? Yes!

The icing on the cake? Knowing when to put away the glitz and let the singing stand alone for songs like Pity The Child and I Know Him So Well. The singing is wonderful, all the performers have powerfully strong voices. This is an ensemble cast in the very best sense. Every one is excellent.

The set is minimal, walls that look like opaque glass, lots of vertical and horizontal lines to remind us of a chess board. At times the costumes of the chess pieces are the set, a swirling fantasy of black and white.  The choreography isn’t complex but the dancing chess pieces perform well, no jarring mis-steps, while they sing and play instruments.  Not easy. I loved The Embassy Lament.

It’s a long show, almost 3 hours with an intermission, but the end of show took me by surprise.  I was completely engrossed and not expecting it. Chess The Musical is a very enjoyable evening of theatre. John and I both recommend it highly.


Chess The Musical is playing at The Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King St West) until October 30th
– Performances are Tuesday – Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.
– Ticket prices range from $45.00 to $145.00
– Tickets are available online, at the box office, or by phone at (416) 871-1212/1-800-461-3333

Photo: Original UK Production – Photo by Keith Pattinson