Chess is Cold War meets hot rock. It’s a tour de force of intelligence, emotional intensity and intrigue (political and personal), sporting a jaw-dropping score with music by ABBA’s Benny & Bjorn (Mama Mia!) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar among his impressive catalog of hits).
The story always has taken a back seat to the pop/rock songs, from the crossover hit, “One Night in Bangkok,” to the oft recorded ballads, “Heaven Help My Heart,” “I Know Him So Well,” and “You and I.” That is until now. This Chess scorches with a controlled heat. No small feat for a cerebral musical set in the exotic locales of Bangkok and Budapest, where two chess champions – American (Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie Trumper) and Russian (Euan Morton as Anatoly Sergievsky) — spar with no holds barred mental gamesmanship, belying the reputation of the sport for well-mannered, civilized behavior. The masters of the game are themselves being played in a broader political match where the gloves are off and national pride is at stake. To further unnerve the opponents, a pair of rocky romantic triangles add to the tension: Freddie, his chess coach (Jill Paice as Florence) and Anatoly, his estranged wife (Eleasha Gamble as Svetlana).
Director Eric Shaeffer’s sleek and streamlined production is a vast improvement of the show. The musical has a bumpy history – a solid hit in London, a disappointingly short run on Broadway, and several well-received concert stagings (the most recent televised version featuring Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Josh Groban). Shaeffer’s incisive changes heighten the dramatic impact of the story on all three levels: the game, the political double-dealing and the love stories. Though the plot may seem esoteric now – hard to believe it’s been nearly four decades since Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, the rock stars of international chess, were household names in the U.S. – it’s deft handling here generates the needed suspense. And although the flawed personalities are still evident — narcissistic, wounded, manipulative, jealous and, above all, angry (complete with anthems to anger mismanagement, “So You Got What You Want” and “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side”), getting rid of the dross has revealed considerably more humanity in this bunch of unlikeable characters who are as cuddly as dry ice. Nevertheless, anyone who knows Chess, and had the good fortune to see Shaeffer’s The Fix in 1998 would rightly suspect that the man and this material are a perfect match.
The nips and tucks in the material are probably the most punishing on Jill Paice in the choice role of Florence, who has few moments to catch her breath with so much of the “filler” material on the cutting room floor. Her performance is full-out emotionally raw, beautifully sustained throughout, and exquisitely vulnerable in songs such as “Someone Else’s Story.” Euan Morton and Jeremy Kushnier perfectly complement each other as the Russian and American opponents, respectively. Morton’s Anatoly is emotionally well-grounded, but tragically caught in circumstances beyond his control. His Act I finale, “Anthem,” a hymn to the land from which he feels compelled to defect, perfectly epitomizes his internal turmoil. Kushnier as Freddie, burns the floor with “One Night in Bangkok” and holds nothing back in “Pity the Child,” an autobiographical song that manages to be both heartwrenching and bone-chilling. The virtuoso acting talent which Paice, Morton and Kushnier bring reveal the first-rate nature of Chess as a musical and not just good concert material.
Schaeffer has rounded out the cast with some of the best local talent as well. Eleasha Gamble plays the forlorn wife, Svetlana, who suffers not only the disaffection and defection of her husband but the social perks which once came with being the wife of a local hero as well. Gamble’s voice is absolutely lovely in the duets “You and I” and “I Know Him So Well.” Chris Sizemore as the Arbiter, no question, fully takes charge of “Arbiter’s Song,” a tower of commanding strength at the center of an entourage of press and spectators. Christopher Bloch (as KGB agent Molokov) and Russell Sunday (as Walter, both personal agent and CIA operative) are cynical, manipulative and deliciously sly. By the end of their duet, “Let’s Work Together,” you half expect them to switch sides and carry on business as usual. Bloch can convey more information with one wry smile than many an actor with a ten minute soliloquy. And Sunday knows his way around a role laden with irony. Moreover, Sunday’s mano-a-mano duel with Kushnier in “Winning” shows how easily he could vocally step into the demanding role of Freddie at the drop of a hat.
Karma Camp’s choreography is more than spot on for numbers such as “Arbiter’s Song” and “One Night in Bangkok.” The set (Dan Conway), lighting (Chris Lee) and costumes (Kathleen Geldard) are simply elegant. The gorgeous score has never sounded better in the capable hands David Holcenberg (music director/orchestrations), Jenny Cartney (conductor) and Matt Rowe (sound designer).
You should be aware that Chess is a musical more fully in the rock musical camp than that other ABBA show, Mama Mia! — on the night reviewed, even the ballads were amped to a “power ballad” wattage that obscured some of the lyrics.
by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Chess is scheduled to run thru Sept 26, 2010.
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
- Wendy Caster . ShowShowdown
- Missy Frederick . DCist
- Fiona Zubin . Washington Post Express
Marsha Dubrow . Baltimore Examiner
- Terry Ponick . Washington Times
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Michael Toscano . Theatermania
- Lauren Frantz . Alexandria Times
Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
- Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Trey Graham . City Paper
Paul Harris . Variety
- Peter Marks . Washington Post