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A CurtainUp Review

It is very sad to see a game that once used to be a model of calm and tranquility when it becomes like any other sport just a battle for ideologies. —Florence, commenting on the World Chess Championship between Russia and the U.S. during the Cold War.
Jill Paice and Euan Morton singing Terrace Duet in Chess at Virginia's Signature Theatre
(Photo credit Scott Suchman)
Chess, the musical, has had a checkered past —- a smash hit in London, a flop on Broadway and then tucked away for over a decade. Enter Eric Shaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre and go-to savior of troubled musicals, whose game plan involved deconstructing and reconstructing Chess into what is now a shorter, tighter and highly entertaining show. It's at Signature, through at leastSeptember 26.

The plot, which requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, pits opposing countries and their top chess players — modeled after the Russian Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer. They are competing against one another during the Cold War for the World Chess Championship and the love of Florence, a beautiful woman who plays chess at their level.

Euan Morton plays the Russian, Anatoly Sergievsky; Jeremy Kushnier, the American, Freddie Trumper; and Jill Paice, Florence. All three performances are superb.

Euan Morton, diminutive in person, commands the stage and his part with a true depth of feeling. Jeremy Kushnier is suitably smart ass and, when singing about how he got that way (rotten parents, i.e. the usual) extremely affecting. But it is Jill Paice, the girl in the middle who is the focal point of this game. Not only is she gorgeous to look at, she has a well articulated voice and the kind of dramatic flair required to be as tough and as vulnerable as the part requires.

The supporting cast is faultless; but special kudos go to Eleasha Gamble, who is very moving as Anatoly's wife, Svetlana. While many of her past performances have been shrill, in Chess she displays a newfound refinement in both her singing and her acting. Christopher Bloch as Gregor, the not-to-be trusted Russian fixer, also delivers a very strong performance.

The show opens with Russians stomping into Budapest to crush the Hungarian revolution in 1964. Shots are heard, mayhem ensues, and Florence, a small blonde child is separated from her parents. Her mother dies, her father's whereabouts are unknown, and the child miraculously turns up in America where she becomes a chess coach. Since much of the exposition is sung in Hungarian and at a decibel level that makes lyrics unintelligible in any language, I may have missed a plot point or two. From there Chess becomes a series of high-stakes games, on the board and in life, with both sides determined to unnerve the other. The happy-ish ending for Florence does not ring true. See above re buying into Richard Nelson's book.

The score by Bjõrn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson — yes, the very same duo who composed Mamma Mia! —- is splendid. Tim Rice's lyrics are clever, particularly in the exquisite ballad "I Know Him So Well," sung here in perfect harmony by Florence and Svetlana. The ten-piece on-stage orchestra is inconsistent, not in their playing which is very fine, but in the way they came across. Ok, "One Night in Bangkok," is a rock song but it was performed in Signature's 276-seat theater at a decibel level better suited to a Broadway-sized auditorium. Maybe even a stadium. It was hard to resist the temptation to throttle the sound designer. Admittedly, the number calls for a good amount of sleaze but Karma Camp's choreography was nothing more than vulgar.

Daniel Conway's scenic design begins with a giant-sized black and white chess board on the plaza in front of the theatre. The stage set of black and white adapts extremely well to the different locales depicted as its checkerboard theme is lit very cleverly by Chris Lee in different colors. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard has clothed the players not just in one or the other black and white. Where ambiguity is called for there's grey too. Rear-screen projection of President Reagan chastising communism for its ungodliness adds to the ambiance of the Cold War era.

The faults in the book and in the amplification are hardly worth whining about in a production this good. Chess is Signature and Schaeffer at the top of their game. New York: it's your move.

Editor's Note: Chess played just 68 performances during it's 1988 Broadway run and was revived as a one night benefit Concert at the New Amsterdam in 2003.

Music by Bjórn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson; lyrics by Tim Rice; based on an idea by Tim Rice; book by Richard Nelson.
Director: Eric Schaeffer
Cast: Christopher Bloch (Molokov), Rachel Boyd/Anna Grace Nowalk (young Florence), Euan Morton (Anatoly Sergievsky), Michael Kramer (Gregor), Chris Sizemore (Arbiter), Jeremy Kushnier (Freddy Trumper), Jill Paice (Florence), Russell Sunday (Walter), Gregory Maheu (Nikolai), Elasha Gamble (Svetlana). Jonathan Atkinson, Jamie Eacker, James Gardiner, Gregory Maheu, Katie McManus, Christopher Mueller, Bayla Whitten, Rachel Zampelli (ensemble).
Music Supervision and Orchestrations: David Holcenberg
Choreography: Karma Camp
Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Projection Design: Aaron Fisher
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. 703-845-0236
From August 10 to October 3, 2010
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $55 to $81
Reviewed by Susan Davidson, based on August 29, 2010 performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Freddie's Entrance/Freddie
  • Russian/Molokov/ Molokov, Anatoly
  • Where I Want to Be, Anatoly
  • Argument/How Many Women/ Florence, Freddie
  • Arbiter's Song/Arbiter/Ensemble
  • A Model of Decorum and Tranquility/Molokov, Florence, Arbiter, Anatoly
  • You Wanna Lose Your Only Friend?/ Florence, Freddie
  • Nobody's on Nobody's Side/Florence, Ensemble
  • One Night in Bangkok/Freddie, Ensemble
  • Terrace Duet/Florence, Anatoly
  • Who'd Ever Think It/Freddie
  • So You Got What You Want/Freddie, Florence
  • Someone Else's Story/Florence
  • Anthem/Anatoly
Act Two
  • Budapest/Ensemble
  • Heaven Help My Heart/Florence
  • Winning/Walter, Freddie
  • You and I/Florence, Anatoly, Svetlana
  • A Whole New Board Game/Freddie
  • Let's Work Together/Walter, Molokov
  • I Know Him So Well/Florence, Svetlana
  • Pity the Child/Freddie
  • Endgame/Arbiter, Walter, Molokov, Anatoly, Freddie, Ensemble
  • You and I/Florence, Anatoly
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