'Chess' at Signature Theatre: musical theater more musical than theatrical

The hit Cold War-themed musical, written by Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, finds a stage at the Arlington theater.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010

Almost any time a mouth opens and notes spill out, the newly slimmed down "Chess" is a gateway to musical-theater nirvana. Thanks to the show's three dynamite leads -- silky Euan Morton, slithery Jeremy Kushnier, slinky Jill Paice -- the music that Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus composed for this '80s rock musical fills Signature Theatre's main stage with a soul-satisfying melodic energy.

This freshly renovated version of the musical, gutted of much of its satirical focus on the game of chess itself, now plays more like an old-fashioned love story, set against the backdrop of a tense chess competition in the midst of the Cold War. The song excisions and other alterations by director Eric Schaeffer, working with Richard Nelson's book for the show's 1988 Broadway edition, for the most part bolster the evening and provide solid, utilitarian support for a gorgeous score.

You will come away from Schaeffer's production -- perched on Daniel Conway's modernistic and visually pleasing set, beautifully lighted by Chris Lee -- brimming with admiration for the Abba guys' lush compositions. These include the goose bump-raising "Anthem," the electronically pulsing "One Night in Bangkok" and the lilting "I Know Him So Well."

And yet it would be a stretch to declare that "Chess" is now a great musical. It's merely a great listen. What the show lacks is the depth of feeling that emanates from characters crafted in three vibrant psychological dimensions. They remain, in the story originally concocted for London by lyricist Tim Rice and refined for Broadway by Nelson, hard to want to put your arms around. Rather humorless, with problems that continue to come across icily, these characters -- originally created for a concept album -- still seem to have been developed strictly as conveyances for the songs.

Employing a commendably light touch, Schaeffer has tried to punch up the show's lump-in-the-throat potential. He's condensed some scenes, which has cut the running time by at least 30 minutes; a heartstring-pulling ending has been fashioned for Paice's Florence, forced as a child to flee Communist-dominated Hungary. These do help (though the technique of using TV screens to flash historical photos has now officially been done one too many times). You do get a little teary just before the evening's close, but it's a reflex rather than a response to a deep investment in the character.

"Chess" arrives at Signature with, no pun intended, a checkered past; a success on the London stage, it flopped on Broadway and has only rarely been revived in this country since. Set in the waning years of the Cold War, it revolves around the obsessively covered chess match between an earnest Soviet star, Anatoly Sergievsky (Morton), and his obnoxious American rival Freddie Trumper (Kushnier).

Freddie's chess second, the emigre Florence, is by affection as well as geopolitics caught between Freddie and the married Anatoly, with whom she falls in love. The affair becomes a tabloid sensation after Florence leaves Freddie's camp and Anatoly abandons his Soviet wife (the terrific Eleasha Gamble) and Soviet minder (an excellent Christopher Bloch) to pursue her.

The London original presumed that audiences were as captivated by the game as they were by the characters' emotional gamesmanship. But a lot of the attempts to set to music the environment of a chess match -- songs, for example, about the host city and the marketers who attach themselves to the contest -- have been jettisoned over the years. (Schaeffer restored one of them, the "Arbiter's Song," which had been cut in New York.)

To place more emphasis on the arc of the love story, he's changed the order of some songs, such as Florence's "Someone Else's Story," which now comes just before Anatoly's climactic "Anthem," at the end of Act 1. Paice sings it and the pop-rockalicious "Nobody's on Nobody's Side" with a heartening sense of commitment. Even better is "I Know Him So Well," her Act 2 duet with Gamble, whose evolution as an interpreter of theater music deepens with her every appearance at Signature.

Through the enthralling eruptions of music you're able to look past the book's limitations and sit back and groove. The orchestrations by David Holcenberg, played by a 10-piece rock-and-string ensemble that's ably conducted by Jenny Cartney, provide an exemplary foundation. And you can't beat the voices, especially of the chess masters. Kushnier gives his songs, most notably the revelatory "Pity the Child," a rocker's shattering intensity.

Only during the disappointing rendition here of the erotic "One Night in Bangkok" is his character ill-served, but that has more to do with the forcing of chorus members to engage in some uncomfortable gyrating; they're far better singers than pole dancers. Most of the time, though, the choreography and musical staging by Karma Camp gets the job done.

And all of the time, Morton's glorious vocalizing makes you happy to be alive. In "Anthem" and "Where I Want to Be" and his final duet with Paice, "You and I," he lets us hear his rich, natural gift. "Chess" may not be a perfect vehicle, but with Morton and company demonstrating how great it can sound, you may mistake even its sputtering moments for purring.


Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Richard Nelson. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Karma Camp; music supervision and orchestrations, David Holcenberg; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Matt Rowe. With Chris Sizemore, Russell Sunday, Gregory Maheu, Rachel Boyd, Anna Grace Nowalk. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Sept. 26 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit or call 703-573-7328.

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