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Daniel Koek takes the UK by storm in Chess The Musical

Published 10 March 2011

Do you know how to play Chess? I can’t say I do, but that didn’t deter me from going to watch ‘Chess The Musical’, which has helped me to see the game in a whole new light. This saucy minx of a show was performed before a packed audience in suburban Woking, and had me rocking in my seat.

One notable feature of this new production of ‘Chess are that the Director and Choreographer (Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood) and musical supervisor and orchestrator (Sarah Travis) have cast mainly actor – musicians. This is not only ever so clever on their part, especially when at one stage they play their instruments lying down – but presents more of a challenge for the principle cast members to belt out their songs over the top. This is achieved effortlessly by the outstanding Daniel Koek in the role of Anatoly Sergievsky, who commands the stage with energy and a magnetic presence. Koek performs the songs ‘Anthem’ and ‘End Game’ with jaw-dropping power, range and passion, and raises the rafters with his exquisite vocal talent.

Shona White Florence Vassey carries the female lead with enthusiasm and vocal power, and James Fox gives a convincing portrayal of Freddie Trumper, even performing a guitar solo. Poppy Tierney puts in an emotional and moving performance as the wronged wife, and though I have never seen ‘I know him so well’ performed, I was very impressed by the show’s imaginative and character-driven interpretation, quite different to the original ‘80s chart hit. The principle cast’s voices complement each other excellently both in solo performances and in contrapuntal harmony, and there is definitely a spine- tingling wow factor!

‘One Night in Bangkok’, the other 1980s hit which is easily recognisable, brought sauce and lasciviousness to the second act: Lycra-clad dancers gyrated about the stage with camp moves that pushed the envelope and made me giggle! As well as comedy, there are dark and sinister moments, as well as controversial side to the show in its direction, which gives the production a tantalising edge.

The settings for ‘Chess’ are from multiple locations including Russia, America and Bangkok. But to make the story easier to follow, the plot focuses on the love triangle between Freddie, Florence and Anatoly. These different settings make for some creative costume and set design by Christopher Woods, and choreography includes a strip tease by the cast dressed as camp fetishlike chess pieces. Although there is not a full set there is a rook, bishop and knight of each colour as well as pawns, alongside a raised chessboard, to great visual effect.

The set design is visually decadent, complimented by Ben Cracknell’s lighting concept and digital images projected onto a screen. The costumes and set are unmistakably ‘80s and the Arbiter (David Erik) dons a leather coat and bare chest throughout, a nod to the New Romantics style.

The explosive musical score of ‘Chess’ is a non-stop feast of songs written by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, all of which drive the action forward. The fact that the music is unlike their Abba songs shows their versatility as composers, although there is a tongue-in-cheek Abba reference in one of the songs for fans.

In my interview with the charming and effervescent Daniel Koek he described the music of ‘Chess’ as a ‘dramatic rock opera, with some beautiful motifs that reoccur throughout the show’. This shows Daniel’s musical experience, who was singing regularly by the tender age of 16, before training classically for several years and then being launched into the London spotlight on the back of his training at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Among his achievements are recording an album, ‘Self Titled Tenor’, including several of his favourite songs such as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Music of the Night’ from ‘Phantom’. This was the musical that made Daniel fall in love with theatre at a young age, when he realised ‘Oh I want to do this!’. One of the tracks from his first album was featured on Elaine Paige’s radio show, who had a number one hit with ‘I know him so well’ in the 1980s with Barbara Dickson.

The role of Anatoly in ‘Chess’ presents a new set of challenges for Daniel compared to his former romantic lead of Tony in West Side Story, but is a good match for his classically trained voice which has an impressive range of bottom G to top D flat! He ably takes on both the dynamic and romantic aspects of the character, as well as a Russian accent, which he carries into his songs. He also shows his acting chops in the dramatic ‘End Game’ and operatic flair, with great versatility as a performer. Daniel includes both ‘End Game’ and the moving ‘Anthem’ in his favourite songs from ‘Chess’, and can now say he knows the rules of the game since many of the chess moves in the show were choreographed by a professional arbiter.

Daniel’s success hasn’t come without hard work and discipline, and, with a schedule of eight shows a week, his physical health is paramount. For physical fitness Daniel tries to do three or four sessions of cardio each week including running and swimming, as well as doing a warm-up before each show. With nearly ten years of experience in the industry, his tips for succeeding are the desire to really want to pursue it, a good agent, as well as perseverance and optimism.

Daniel will be recording his second album in the near future and counts Australian singers John Farnham and Anthony Warlow among his musical influences. Warlow’s songs have inspired the programme for his show this Sunday, when Daniel will be featuring in ‘Cabaret in the House’ at Lauderdale House in Highgate. The programme will also include ‘Maria’ from the iconic ‘West Side Story’ and a selection of opera, pop and musical theatre hits.

‘Chess the musical’ is packing out theatres all over the U.K, and received rapturous applause from a full house in Woking. I have no doubt that it will make its way to the West End, and that Daniel Koek, with his reputation as one of the finest young classical crossover voices, will be blazing a trail into the West end scene before we know it!

Chess The Musical
Location: New Victoria Theatre, Woking
Show Dates: Tuesday 8th – Saturday 12th March
Show Times: Tues – Sat eves 8pm, Sat matinee 2.30pm

Booking/Enquiry Tel: 0844 871 7645
Official website: www.chess-the-musical.co.uk

  • Marianne Row

    Leaving aside the lovely Daniel for a moment, don’t you think James Fox was the best ever Freddie Trumper? Previously Freddie had been portrayed as rather shallow and juvenile but James has made him into a far more interesting, dynamic, tragic and complex character. The “Pity the Child” song is high and difficult and he did a brilliant job of it. In the ’80s Prince Edward production there was always a bit of a worry that the Freddie wasn’t going to quite pull it off. No such concerns here. The problem is that a brilliant Freddie creates a need for an even more brilliant Anatoly. Tommy Korberg as Anatoly back in the ’80s was a perfect foil for the previous Freddie. He was an attractive, older, more stable, more confident man – you could see why Florence, getting out of a tempestuous, abusive relationship would be drawn to him – especially in view of her absent father issues. For me, there wasn’t enough diversity between the two men in this production. I would have liked an older, bigger, more imposing Anatoly. That said, Daniel’s voice is to die for – I just didn’t feel he fitted my vision of what an Anatoly should be as the right antidote to Freddie.

    Loved the actor/musician staging although the Bangkok scene was a bit of a shocker. Not sure about those flesh-coloured, Borat-inspired, mankinis with the gold bits – the oldies in the row behind me were absolutely scandalised which I realise is the point, but they were not attractive. Be afraid………… be very afraid!

    I didn’t like the fact that they changed the words in some places or that they “Joseph”ed the end of a couple of the numbers, but then I am so familiar with the original and had such a love affair with it, it almost physically hurts when they tweak it. However, these minor disgruntles aside, it’s so great to have Chess back again. The energy, dynamism and professionalism of the cast is an absolute joy. Please, please make a film of it – like they did with Chicago. Not just disjointed chess pieces, but the whole show. Please. Pretty please?

  • Vinnieson

    I get the impression the above review was written by a fan of James Fox because for majority of people who watched this tour he was the weakest link. and non actor in a leading role and he stood out like a sore thumb Freddie is supposed to be a villain and evil. the fact Fox’s Freddie wasn’t is why Marianne Row thought Dan Koek wasn’t strong enough in the role. he was it was fox who made the show unbelievable by trying to be a loveable villain If this is going any further at all first to be recast has to be the dreadful James Fox he can sing but act the bad guy No way