Chess at the Kennedy Center is a checkmate. In other words, this formerly troubled musical with a beloved score, is taking the Eisenhower Theatre stage by storm in a staged, semi-concert format that may prove to be the definitive version of this rock-tinged, Cold War love story. Does this mean the cult musical has finally grown up?
Credible rumors of this revised version of the Cold War-set musical heading to Broadway are found throughout social media. The creators of the show were in the house on opening night, too. I would say the game board might be set up to make the big winner not the “US versus USSR” but the rabid fans of the show who would clamor to see the show succeed on the Great White Way.
I could spend an entire feature story recounting the up and down history of Chess, from its 1984 concept album, London production, ill-fated Broadway re-mix, and countless tweaked versions on tour and abroad in the following years. For those who want to be more Chess-savvy, I suggest you head to this website devoted to the Chess collaborators and their most famous work.
Chess brought together British theatre lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, etc.) and the music men from Swedish super-group ABBA, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. The Swedish composers came up with a doozy of a score that blended pop-sounds, rock-opera edginess, with classical influences, and even a dash of Gilbert and Sullivan. Rice has stated he provided some of his best work to the libretto and lyrics for Chess. Rice had the idea for a musical that had the Cold War as its backdrop and the high stakes world of chess champions from opposing nations grew. The ancient game of chess is the game of choice for the leading characters, it also serves as a metaphor for the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. in 1980 – a cat and mouse game of strategic moves and gambits.
For the Kennedy Center’s new Broadway Center Stage program of semi-staged, book-in-hand productions, Chess is a bold first move. The collaborators, with some new help, have upped their game once again, this time with a revamped and rearranged score, new lyrics here and there and – more importantly – a new book by Danny Strong. I mention the book’s importance because the Andersson-Ulvaeus-Rice songs still pack a punch, especially as performed at the Kennedy Center cast of Broadway veterans. (More on them soon.) The book has gotten a full renovation, complete with portions of narration and dialogue scenes that keep the story moving, clarify the relationships and high stakes involved, and sparkles with well-placed humor. During a meeting between the Soviet chess manager slash spy Molokov and his American counterpart Walter in the Bangkok Airport, the western spook exclaims “I’m hoping chlamydia will distract from the boredom.” “I’m sure that can be arranged,” responds the Russian, referring to Bangkok’s reputation for the sex trade.
Musicals that do not succeed often fail due to book trouble. From what I witnessed on stage, Strong’s new script for Chess is an asset that enhances the story and buttresses the songs in a positive way. If this musical does head for Broadway for a new chance, I think they are onto the right track, given the strength that the score and lyrics which are still front and center and magnificently performed by the Kennedy Center cast.
Raul Esparza was born to play the brash, maverick of an American chess grandmaster Freddie Trumper. Esparza (Broadway’s Leap of Faith, Company) conveys Freddie’s devil-may-care, f***-the-Russians attitude with ease; his supple rock-tenor singing style is also the prime vehicle for songs such as “Pity the Child” (which is now woven throughout his arc) and the sexy production number “One Night in Bangkok.” Esparza’s chemically dependent manic chess champion is in stark contrast to his Russian rival Anatoly Sergievsky, played with virile stoicism by Ramin Karmiloo. Karmiloo (The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies) is a picture of cool control, a product of Anatoly’s Soviet training and grooming as a chess winning machine. His powerhouse voice, heard last season in Broadway’s Anastasia, is equally masterful delivering Anatoly’s songs such as “Where I Want to Be,” and the stirring “Anthem.” The political tensions and personal conflicts between these characters have been clarified by the new script which makes for a more connected relationship.
The women in Freddie and Anatoly’s lives are pivotal and Michael Mayer’s casting makes these characters shine impeccably, thanks to two Tony Award winners. Karen Olivo (In The Heights, West Side Story revival) lends her strong presence and expansive belt to Freddie’s handler, Florence. Olivo, striking in haute couture designed by Clint Ramos, commands the stage and builds compelling relationships with the chess rivals, moving from Freddie’s former lover and den mother to Anatoly’s love interest. Whether she is dueting with Esparza (“Florence Quits”), Karmiloo (“You and I”), or taking the stage in one of her own songs (“Heaven Help My Heart”), Olivo lands every number. To raise stakes for the story, Florence, a Hungarian in this version, lost her father years ago at the hands of the Soviet take over of her homeland. The spymasters from Russian and American spy-masters – played with relish by Bradley Dean and Sean Alan Krill, respectively – use her immigrant status to their advantage to heighten the Cold War cat and mouse plot twists. (A tip of the hat to DMV stage favorite Thomas Adrian Simpson for his important cameo, too.)
Another one of the calculated moves to manipulate the dueling chess players is to use Anatoly’s estranged wife Svetlana as a pawn during the second act, after Anatoly has defected to Great Britain with Florence. Ruthie Ann Miles, Tony Award-winner for the revival of The King and I, takes the stage and makes maximum impact in her few scenes and songs, especially her plaintive “Someone Else’s Story” and a duet with Olivo, “I Know Him So Well.”
The other featured member of the cast, and one who nearly steals more than a few scenes, is the narrator and omnipresent Arbiter as portrayed by Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Holiday Inn). With a well-timed look or quip, Pinkham brings a welcome sense of humor throughout the proceedings; his uncanny tenor voice also shines in his musical numbers, especially “The Story of Chess” and the “Arbiter’s Song.”
closes February 18, 2018
Details and tickets
Director Mayers chooses to keep most of the cast onstage in an arena-like setting, with chairs for the ensemble to stay and watch when not engaged, a convention he utilized effectively in Spring Awakening, too. This allows for a seamless flow from scene to scene, enhanced by the lighting design by Kevin Adams, and creative use of projections by Darrel Maloney. Lorin Latarro’s choreography is subdued and handled well by the talented ensemble. The dancing takes a turn into the world of sexy, sleaze for the second act’s “One Night in Bangkok,” which I can only describe as a nod to the old-time tired businessman-type number from the Golden Age of Broadway. The scantily clad ensemble does evoke the sex dens of Vietnam, so it works, even it it jars the senses a bit, popping up after 90 minutes of jazz and modern dance moves.
My only reservation about this lively and engaging staging of Chess was the sound design. As good as the onstage orchestra was at bringing the Andersson-Ulvaeus score to life, and they were very solid under Chris Fenwick’s steady baton, Kai Harada’s sound design did not find a good balance, causing many lyrics to be lost in some of the songs. The orchestra outpowered the vocalists on occasion, hopefully a situation that got adjusted on subsequent nights.
Of course, a really good review is all well and good when you can still get tickets to see and hear the show for yourself. Alas, this inaugural Broadway Center Stage production was sold out weeks ago and had less than a week of performances. Let’s cross fingers that Sir Tim and the ABBA boys get their way and move their big Chess game to Broadway for a rematch.
Chess by Benny Andersson, Tim Rice, and Bjorn Ulvaeus . New book by Danny Strong . Directed by Michael Mayer . Featuring: Raul Esparza, Ramin Karmiloo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Karen Olivo, Bradley Dean, Sean Alan Krill, Bryce Pinkham, and Thomas Adrian Simpson . Choreographed by Lorin Latarro . Music direction by Chris Fenwick . Scenic design by David Rockwell . Costume design by Clint Ramos . Lighting Design by Kevin Adams . Sound design by Kai Harada . Projection design by Darrel Maloney . Costume design: Margie Jervis . Stage manager: Lisa Iacucci . Produced by Broadway Center Stage, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts . Reviewed by Jeff Walker