This June and July, the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts hosts the musical “Chess,” marking its debut in Asia.
The musical was composed in the early 1980s by two former members of ABBA. The story follows a Cold War-era chess tournament between the American grandmaster, Freddie, and the Soviet grandmaster, Anatoly. The two men conflict not only over chess but also over their mutual attraction to Freddie’s manager, Florence. It’s a story of betrayal, ambition and… chess.
I feel like there was a rather weird phase of pop culture interest in chess during the 1980s and ‘90s, traceable back to the brief fame of Bobby Fischer. I definitely studied a disproportionate amount about chess while I was in school (compared to how useful it’s been in life, which is not at all).
During my lifetime, I have seen exactly zero evidence that the paparazzi and/or the general public would ever care about chess championships, but it comes up all the time in literature.
Unfortunately, chess is not actually that exciting as a subject for musical theater.
The Seoul production was basically carried by the ensemble dancers and the spectacular choreography from Seo Byung-goo and Hong Yoo-sun. The cast made interesting use of the stage, set and props to keep each scene at its most visually stimulating. And “One Night in Bangkok” is a total jam. But there’s only so much dancing rooks can do for your show, y’know?
The main cast rotates throughout the week and includes a number of well-known k-pop stars. The performance I attended featured Ken from the band VIXX as Anatoly, Shin Sung-woo as Freddie, and An Si-ha as Florence.
Ken has a powerful voice, which was particularly evident during his cynical solo song “Where I Want to Be.” This number was definitely one of the highlights of the show and showed off his smooth vocals.
However, Ken’s acting did not seem on par with his singing — he struggled to come across mature enough to accurately portray Anatoly. His musical talent is certain, but his acting failed to bring any emotional depth to the character. He also failed to create any real chemistry with the other actors; certainly not with Florence, for whom he was supposed to feel some heart-wrenching passion.
I’d be curious to see the performance again with a change in cast to see how the different actors would alter the experience, or if “Chess” is just unsalvageable. I dunno. Let’s call it a stalemate.
175 Sejong-daero, Jongno-gu
Weekdays at 4 and 8 p.m., weekends at 3 and 7 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday through July 19
Tickets range from 40,000 – 130,000 KRW
For more information, visit www.musicalchess.co.kr.