BWW Reviews: Three Cheers for CHESS at Signature

Three_Cheers_for_Chess_20010101

Sweden. Why do I think 2010 will be forever linked with this beautiful Scandinavian country?  The first reason?   I have just finished reading the wonderful and intense trilogy of crime novels by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson and enjoyed  the first two of the films based on his work, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire".  His story made the front cover of "Entertainment Weekly" recently.

The second reason? You may recall the Swedish rock group ABBA who only this year were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Well, the male half of the quartet, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (Does the hit musical Mamma Mia! ring a bell?) composed the music to Chess with lyrics by Evita and Lion King lyricist Tim Rice back in 1984 when a concept album was produced. It opened in 1986 in the West End with the great Elaine Paige playing the leading role of Florence. It played for three years. The 1988 Broadway production starring Judy Kuhn lasted only two months.  A six month national tour in 1990 starred Carolee Carmello (arguably the best "Donna" in Mamma-Mia!)

The only production of Chess I have seen was the terrific job by the Maryland Arts Festival in 2003 starring Shawn Doyle, Libby Gensler, and Dennis Wood.

Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, with the help of Book writer Richard Nelson, has cut, revised, and is presenting a "new" version of the show which may very lead to the show's return to Broadway.

The location of the show has been changed. In the original version, the show began in Italy. Now, it opens during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 Budapest where a young girl, Florence, is separated from her father fleeing the Communist takeover while the Russians put down the rebellion. Four small television screens show the historic footage of Russian tanks rolling down the streets of Budapest.

The scene then shifts to 1986 Bangkok where a chess match between Freddy Trumper representing the United States versus the Russian champion Anatoly Sergievsky. The basis of the show is the world-wide interest in the Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky chess match for the World Championship in 1972.

The show shifts from Bangkok to Budapest where the chess match continues.  I happened to have visited Budapest that very same year. It was still behind the Iron Curtain and one saw Russian soldiers patrolling the streets. It was quite scary.

Why does this musical work now? Combine history, the cold war, competition between the U.S. and Russia, a love story, and gorgeous music and that equals success.

One has to give credit to Director Eric Schaeffer for reinventing the show. It has been streamlined by about thirty minutes. The love story between Anatoly and Florence (Trumper's assistant) has been bolstered.

He has assembled a tremendous cast of Broadway veterans. Canadian Jeremy Kushnier is superb as the crass and egocentric Freddie. Scotland's gift to Broadway, Euan Morton, so incredible starring in Taboo, plays Anatoly with the requisite grace necessary for the role but when he belts the finale of Act I "Anthem", it's goose bump city. What a performance!

Special mention must be made to Jill Paice who plays Anatoly's love interest who yearns to be united with her Hungarian father. I was impressed with Paice on Broadway in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Woman in White and in the Signature production of Ace. This part will make her a star! I literally had tears during her "Someone Else's Story" and the finale duet with Morton "You and I".

Schaeffer has assembled quite a cast. Helen Hayes Award winner Christopher Bloch shines in his performance as the Russian in charge of Anatoly, Molokov. Chris Sizemore plays the Arbiter who has the responsibility to make the chess game happen.  Thankfully he  gets the opportunity to sing the wonderful number "Arbiter's Song" which was removed from the Broadway production. Russell Sunday does a nice job as the U.S. representative Walter and Eleasha Gamble plays Anatoly's Russian wife.  Her duet with Paice "I Know Him So Well" brings down the house. 

The outstanding ensemble (often in punk-like black leather outfits and black leather gloves) is comprised of Jonathan Atkinson, Jamie Eacker, James Gardiner, Michael Kramer, Gregory Maheu, Katie McManus, Christopher Mueller, Bayla Whitten, Rachael Zampelli, Rachel Boyd, and Anna  Grace Nowalk (who share the role of young Florence). For the first time I noticed that there were even two swings in the cast, something you normally only see on Broadway. Emily Levey plays the female swing and Gannon O'Brien is the male swing.

Jenny Cartney conducts a marvelous ten piece orchestra (and plays the keyboard). They include Lee Lachman (woodwinds), Doug Dube and Andrea Vercoe on violins, Aron Rider and Deb Brudvig on cello, Gabriel Mangiante and Jenny Cartney on keyboards, Phil Mathieu guitar, Eric Seay on the double bass and electric bass, and Gary Tillman on drums. It's great fun to watch them as they sit high on stage right.

Much of the success of the music stems from the great orchestrations by David Holcenberg (also Music Supervisor) who has much experience with the music of Andersson and Ulvaeus since he has been involved with their Broadway production of Mamma Mia! since 2001 and the North and South America tours. Holcenberg could be the next Jonathan Tunick.

Chris Lee did the lighting and at times makes the stage come alive like a music video.

Daniel Conway has done a splendid job as the scenic designer.

Kathleen Geldard's costumes, Matt Rowe (sound), and Aaron Fisher (projection Design) all make wonderful contributions.

I had the pleasure to meet composer Ulvaeus at the After-Tony Award Mamma Mia! party in June 2002 and asked when, if ever, Chess would return to Broadway. I recall he stated, "You never know". Well, I hope he comes to see this production and gives The Shubert Organization the OK to try again.

Due to sold-out audiences, the show has been extended until Oct. 3 . Don't wait to get tickets. They will be gobbled up.  Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org and see snippets of the production.

For an interesting web site regarding composers Andersson and Ulvaeus, visit www.icethesite.com.

If you can't get enough of Euan Morton, head to Baltimore's Center Stage where he will return to perform October 14- October 17. He puts on quite a show.  For tickets, call 410-332-0033.

For comments, write to cgshubow@broadwayworld.com.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman


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