Take some music created by Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, pair it with a hit of Australian pop royalty and a sprinkling of astounding operatic voices, and you’ve got Chess the Musical.
The superb score is backed by lyrics and book by Tim Rice and features a cast with big names, including Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Paulini and Rob Mills.
This semi-staged version of the musical sees chess adversaries battle it out, while a storyline of political intrigue and a love triangle simmer in the background.
Within some constraints, set and costume designer Dann Barber has crafted the aesthetics beautifully – the entire show plays out on a giant chess board in the middle of the stage, surrounded by the 25-piece orchestra and choir. It does get a little busy at times with so many bodies on stage as the notoriously complex plot plays out.
Costumes give a little nod to the 1980s – the era in which the original musical was created – without venturing too far into the territory of shoulder pads and high-shine polyester.
A sleek colour palette of black and white is punctuated only by tasteful pops of red.
Despite all the big pop names on the stage, it’s Alexander Lewis as Russian chess player Anatoly who steals the scenes. The tenor’s operatic background shines through and his strong voice remains a constant throughout the night.
Lewis’s on-stage wife Paulini brings the soaring highs with her every note, oozing with the heartache of her character Svetlana, after her husband leaves her for Bassingthwaighte’s Florence.
The diverse score covers it all, from the catchy One Night in Bangkok to open the second act, to Paulini and Bassingthwaighte’s heartfelt I Know Him So Well – a song recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest selling UK chart single by a female duo (Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson).
The pair branches out from their pop queen titles to demonstrate they belong on the musical theatre stage. Bassingthwaighte’s Nobody’s Side is another powerful moment, garnering enthusiastic applause.
There’s a lot of accent work in the performance and it tends to be distracting, with a few slipping in and out over the course of the show.
The strength of the score has to carry a lot in Chess – the convoluted plot, the sometimes chaotic staging, and some uneven performances – but lovers of the music, and Benny and Björn’s work in general, will have fun.
Chess the Musical is at Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 29.