Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of CHESS at The Kennedy Center?

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of CHESS at The Kennedy Center?

The Kennedy Center wraps up its production of Chess tonight at 8pm. Chess is an epic rock opera about love and political intrigue set against the backdrop of the Cold War as two superpowers attempt to manipulate an international chess championship for political ends.

Written in 1984 by songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (Mamma Mia!) and lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lion King, Evita), Chess has been seen in numerous productions around the world. The original concept album spawned two international hit singles, "I Know Him So Well" and "One Night in Bangkok." Presented as a part of Broadway Center Stage, a Kennedy Center-produced series of musicals in semi-staged concerts, Chess ran February 14-18, 2018 in the Eisenhower Theater.

Chess stars Raúl Esparza as American chess champion Freddie Trumper; Ramin Karimloo as rival Russian chess star Anatoly Sergievsky; Ruthie Ann Miles as Anatoly's wife, Svetlana Sergievsky; and Karen Olivo as Florence Vassy, a remarkable Hungarian refugee who becomes the center of the emotional triangle.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Jennifer Perry, BroadwayWorld: Strong adds his own elements to the story in an effort to provide opportunities to comment (sometimes "humorously") on some of the most headline-grabbing political issues we face in America today - from tense U.S.-Russian relations and ongoing larger debates about the nuclear option, to immigration - and draw parallels between "then" and "now." Without turning this review into something else entirely, I will say most of his attempts to draw parallels between two distinct sociopolitical contexts were clumsy at best and showed an incredibly naïve and unsophisticated understanding of international relations, the current and past global strategic environment and power structure, and more. Perhaps if the creative team would like to continue to improve the new book, focusing on these admittedly complex political realities, they might benefit from bringing in additional expertise to their team. An additional concern is that the book is even more convoluted than past attempts and not particularly theatrical. It plays more like a script for a screenplay.

Hillary Sutton, DC Metro Theater Arts: Raúl Esparza, who Broadway lost to Law & Order SVU for six years, is back in musical-theatre-land and the gods rejoice. He brings a layered sensitivity to the tempestuous Trumper. His eleven o'clock number is a highlight of the show. "Pity the Child #3" is a heartbreaking and captivating portrait of a man on the brink. His rock tenor is unparalleled.

Karen Olivo's Florence is sharp, vulnerable, strong, and weak simultaneously. She is Broadway magic personified. Her "Heaven Help My Heart" is wrenching. Ramin Karimloo has the difficult task of making accessible a character whose battles are largely internal. He nails it whilst being absolutely swoon-worthy.

Ruthie Ann Miles does not appear until the second act which is a real bummer since she is so captivating. Her ballad "Someone Else's Story" and the duet "I Know Him So Well" are stunning tunes.

And Bryce Pinkham, as the Arbiter, provides perfect comedic beats and narration. His numbers with the ensemble are stand-outs: "US vs USSR" and "The Story of Chess" chief among them.

Jeffrey Walker, DC Theatre Scene: 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.

Paul Harris, Variety: With only two weeks of rehearsal time under its belt, the cast - led by Broadway headliners Raul Esparza (Freddie), Ramin Karimloo (Anatoly), Ruthie Ann Miles (Svetlana) and Karen Olivio (Florence) - delivered a sturdy performance that substituted exuberance for what it lacked in polish. The show's soaring melodies were delivered with authority, including an act one number, "Merano," which was sung in the original London production but omitted from the Broadway show. Much-needed comic relief was offered by Bryce Pinkham in the role of the arbiter, offering droll summaries of the proceedings. ("Once again, nuclear Armageddon threatens to ruin the chess tournament.")

Peter Marks, The Washington Post: 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.

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