One night in Tartu and the world's your oyster

  • 2006-08-23
  • By Joel Alas

COLD WAR CHIC: Georg Malvius directs Koit Toome in Theatre Vanemuine's new production of 'Chess,' the cult '80s musical that combined the talents of Tim Rice and ABBA.

TARTU - The history of the musical "Chess" is almost more dramatic than the production itself. Since the early '80s, it has been rewritten, rescored and revamped countless times. If it were a child, "Chess" could be considered an inconsolable tantrum-throwing parental nightmare. Its underlying theme 's the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West 's is now almost ancient history, though certainly not irrelevant in the Baltics.

So why did executive producer Paavo Nogene pick this particular musical?
Because, despite its tumultuous history, the story and its songs still seem to hold some contemporary appeal.
"We have had a lot of guests from all over the world who have come to watch it. Because of its connection with ABBA [Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, two of the famous Swedish group's songwriters, composed the score], people love the show," Nogene says.

The book and lyrics were penned in 1984 by Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber's lesser-recognized writing partner for stage hits such as "Evita," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream-coat" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
The subject of Rice, Ulvaeus and Andersson's collaboration hardly seems like thrilling theater, yet they somehow managed to build drama into the story of a chess tournament.

"Chess" focuses on the rivalry between two players, an American and a Russian, at a world chess championship competition. Their rivalry becomes more intense when the American's girlfriend begins to show an interest in his opponent. The plot continues, using the love story and sport struggle as fertilizer for drawing out Cold War themes.
The production premiered in London in 1986, and ran for 1,209 nights. Its songs were released as singles, some of which became chart hits in both the U.K. and Sweden.

However it began to unravel when a Broadway version was attempted. It was re-written for its new audience, beginning a long history of dramas that have blighted the show's history.
In the Broadway version, the entire second act was scrapped and a new story installed. It was panned by critics for being irrelevant and unfocused, and it closed after just eight weeks on the stage.
Since then "Chess" has mainly been a staple production for regional theater companies in the United States and Europe.
Now it has been re-written once again, this time as a concert production, and this time in Estonian, to be performed at Theatre Vanemuine in Tartu.

Nogene says he decided to stage "Chess" in Tartu at the prompting of Rice himself.
"Tim Rice visited Tartu in 2002 when we staged "Evita," and again in 2003 for "Aida" (which he co-wrote with Elton John), and again in 2004 for "Jesus Christ Superstar." After "Aida"'s opening night he said he would like to see how we could make "Chess." We already had plans for our 2004 and 2005 season, and now we finally opened it," Nogene says.
The production has been directed by Georg Malvius, a Swede who is no stranger to Estonian theater-goers. In recent years, he has worked on dozens of high-profile musical productions both in the Baltics and across Scandinavia. According to his biography, it appears there are few musicals he has not directed in his long career, including "Rent" and "Oliver" in Estonia.
But with Estonian lyrics and a Swedish director, will English-speaking audiences be able to appreciate the Tartu version of "Chess"? Paavo thinks so.

"We are using subtitles for tourists so everybody can understand it," he says.
Theatre Vanemuine has a strong reputation as a creative factory, and often presents musicals, dramas, operas and dance performances that make some question whether Tartu, not Tallinn, is the nation's cultural capital.
"A lot of (Tallinn residents) visit us regularly. In fact, "Chess" is only allowed to play in Tartu because of technical questions. Theatre Vanemuine has the biggest stage in Estonia, and we also have new high quality lighting and sound systems. Tartu is the only place for it," he says.

"Chess" Aug. 24 's 27
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