Monday, September 6, 2010

Chess at The Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia

Chess.    Sigh, Chess, Chess, Chess.     This musical by the 2 "B"'s in ABBA, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyricist Tim Rice has had a very problematic history.      It began life as a concept album, which this reviewer proudly owns to this day...on vinyl.    The problem with the album was that the story was pretty much laid out in the liner notes with very little dialogue on the album itself.   The two chess masters were even simply called The American and The Russian.   It evolved into a popular production in London where it ran for three years.   The Broadway production with a completely rethought book by Richard Nelson.      It is stated on Wikipedia that all subsequent productions in North America must use the Broadway book.    Whether or not that is a true statement it is the version of the musical that has been staged by Signature Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer.    So, if you saw the recently broadcast concert version of Chess, performed at the Royal Albert Hall, this is a vastly different story.
Schaeffer has worked numerous changes, edited the musical down to about 2 hours and 15 minutes plus intermission.   The original Broadway production ran over 3 hours.

The acting and the score are the real stars of this production.   Across the board the production is well cast. Jeremy Kushnier is appropriately smarmy and brash as the American challenger, Freddie Trumper.    He takes what is essentially a one-note character and manages to fight well to bring some dimension to Freddie.   The problem is until the song, Pity the Child at the end of Act Two, we, as an audience, have very little reason to like the character and absolutely no investment in wanting him to win the match.   Euan Morton has an easier time with the more fleshed out character of Anatoly Sergievsky.    Euan has a beautiful voice and makes Anatoly sympathetic even as it is clear that he, too, has an unlikeable element, once the audience meets his wife, Svetlana.     Svetlana is wonderfully acted and sung by Eleasha Gamble, although it may be jarring for the audience that Signature has colorblind casted the role.  Normally I cheer colorblind casting, but when the role is specifically Soviet Russian, it did take me more than a few moments to look past it and just enjoy her performance.
The real star of the production is the true central character, Florence, portrayed amazingly by Jill Paice.   She burns through the show, with an amazing voice and very strong acting, she simply lives and breathes this character.    Paice is reason enough to see this production.

There are a few issues with the staging.    There are four video screens which spend the majority of the production above the second level of the set.    The problem with that is that there is a handrail on that level that bisects the screens for those audience members sitting in the first couple of rows.    If they had been hoisted maybe one foot higher this would not have been a problem.     Also, for the group numbers, choreographer, Karma Camp, has created very 80's music video patterns, but they are mostly staged dead center.    If you are off to the side it is difficult to get the full intent of the choreography.    And I must agree with the Washington Post's critic that the staging of One Night in Bangkok was very disappointing.     Bangkok was the big "hit" of the concept album and has suffered from being moved for North American productions to the middle of Act One.    It is definitely stronger as an opening number for Act Two as it is in the album and London production.   But, can we not be more creative in portraying the decadent nightlife of the city than crotch grabbing, butt swatting and pole dancing?  

A note about where this reviewer was sitting.    As a subscriber I was supposed to be in C118.   However, a computer glitch invalidated my ticket.     As a result I was seated in A2 - front row all the way to the left.   Because of this I was able to note the flaws of the staging.

However, despite the flaws, I do recommend the show.   The performances and the score are wonderful, there are still flaws to the book.   (Florence shouldn't be in her late 30's which the story implies heavily).   But, you will rarely get a chance to see Chess and this is a more than adequate production to attend.

For those that care:  Chess contains gunfire and strobe effects and is performed with a 15 minute intermission.       It is playing at The Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia through October 3.
For tickets and performance information visit

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