Oh, the intensity!
The four dynamic, Broadway-tested leads of the Kennedy Center’s concert revival of “Chess” — Karen Olivo, Raúl Esparza, Ruthie Ann Miles and Ramin Karimloo — sing with all the supercharged gusto you could hope for. And still, this latest revision of the Cold War rock musical by Tim Rice and those gifted Abba guys, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with a “new book” by Danny Strong (writer of “The Butler” and co-creator of “Empire”), cannot shake off the eternal impression “Chess” conveys, of a tantalizing score trapped in an all too self-important, convoluted story.
“Chess,” first produced in this country in 1988, is the initial offering of a musicals-in-concert series that the institution is calling “Broadway Center Stage,” and the top-flight talent it has attracted launches it as a potentially splendid new program. (Next up is “In the Heights,” but given that Washington has already seen two exemplary versions of that musical in the past year, the Kennedy Center entry feels redundant.)
All four of the evening’s principals have established themselves as among the best Broadway musical revival performers of late: Olivo in “West Side Story,” Esparza in “Company,” Miles in “The King and I” and Karimloo in “Les Misérables.” Together with the performance of Bryce Pinkham (of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” fame), the casting of this production, which runs through Sunday, represents one of the most inspired acts of the musical-theater season, anywhere.
As for the musical itself, staged in the Eisenhower Theater by director Michael Mayer in front of a scaffolding supporting conductor Chris Fenwick and 19 members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra: It remains thrillingly sung and irredeemably contrived. The story, taking place from 1979 to 1983, is inspired by the celebrated 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match. The players here are embodied by Esparza as obnoxious American Freddie Trumper (yes, the character’s original name) and Karimloo as the heartthrob Russian Anatoly Sergievsky. Olivo, playing Hungarian emigre Florence Vassy, is Freddie’s chess second, and the love interest ping-ponging between Freddie and Anatoly; Miles is Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana, trotted out by the KGB to toy with Anatoly’s mind.
The problem with “Chess” revolves around its tedious schematic construct. Its unconvincing love triangle has to compete with a tangle of other lugubrious threads: the nuclear gamesmanship between the United States and Soviet Union; the posturing and pageantry of the international chess scene. No one has figured out how to bring these plot elements into harmony, and new book writer Strong is, alas, not an exception.
In this version, the songs have been reshuffled — with each new incarnation of the show, this has become a ritual — and in an effort to beef up the musical’s topicality, Strong adds more specificity to the geopolitical backdrop. Footage of military parades in Moscow, Ronald Reagan-era campaign spots and interviews with atom-bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer are projected onto screens behind the orchestra; a narrator, mostly superfluous and played by Pinkham, has been added, and the exceedingly heavy-handed roles of KGB and CIA operatives (Bradley Dean and Sean Allan Krill, respectively) are accorded even more than usual prominence.
The result, at 2 hours 50 minutes — a half-hour longer than a previously reworked, 2010 version of the musical at Signature Theatre — is shovelfuls of regurgitated history and endless exposition, relieved by those alternately pounding and creamy melodies.
The best of them — “Anthem,” “You and I,” “Pity the Child,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” “I Know Him So Well” — are delivered here with a rafter-raising fervor, and in chic gray costume by Clint Ramos, the show’s dancers add physical grace notes, courtesy of choreographer Lorin Latarro. Esparza, scaling up into the peak of his register, rocks out blazingly — even if it’s at the expense of lyrical clarity, a problem that afflicts virtually everyone in the 19-person cast. (In a musical about the balance of power, it’s the conflict between orchestra and vocalists that most urgently needs to be resolved.)
The dazzling Olivo’s work here demonstrates her range and magnetism; Karimloo and Miles infuse a mellifluousness into everything they sing. For goodness sake, let’s see them all back on Broadway. Just in something else.
Chess, by Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with a new book by Danny Strong. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Lorin Latarro; set, David Rockwell; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Darrel Maloney; music direction, Chris Fenwick; orchestrations, Anders Eljas; production stage manager, Lisa Iacucci. With Thomas Adrian Simpson. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Sunday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. All remaining performances are sold out.