Means there’s one less variation to be played
Appropriate lyrics for a show which has seen more variations than most. In 1980, lyricist Tim Rice developed the concept in a 5-page synopsis, exploring how the Cold War affected the lives it touched, much the same way chess pieces are moved about on a chess board
Rice’s synopsis was expanded and with music written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (both of ABBA), was first recorded as a “concept album” in 1984. The first staged production did not occur until 1986. There have been several rewrites, including an ill-fated 3 hour production which ran for only 68 performances on Broadway.
The version which was first presented in Chicago in 1990 is a splendid opener to the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s 16th season. Directed by Steve Isaacson, the production gives us pre-Glasnost stereotypes of good guys and bad guys, with a chess board as the battlefield.
Costume designer Jean Henderson sets the stage by dressing her good guys (the Americans) all in white and her bad guys (the Russians) in black, with red ties. The ensemble are in black or shades of gray.
The story follows two chess grandmasters--the boorish, self-centered American champion and his Russian challenger--through two matches, one in Bangkok and one in Hungary--during the last throes of the Cold War. The plot does not follow smoothly, from one scene to the next, so crisp diction is a must for understanding all the elements. Regretfully, this was not always the case in Saturday night’s performance.
The action begins in 1956 Budapest, where Gregor Vassy (Doug Ackerman, impressive in his DMTC debut), is hiding with other refugees, and teaching his young daughter Florence (Julia Spangler) to play chess. He arranges for Florence to be sent to safety in America, but breaks a chess piece in two, giving her half and keeping half for himself, as his promise that they will one day be reunited.
The scene shifts to 1985 Bangkok and a press conference for the two competitors in an impending international chess competition. The American, Freddie Trumper (played to the hilt by Jeremiah Lowder, in his DMTC debut) acts like an obnoxious jerk, irritating his opponent, Anatoly Sergievsky (Troy Thomas), and embarrassing his assistant, the now grown-up Florence (Andrea Eve Thorpe).
Tempers flare at the chess match itself and Freddie storms out after accusing Anatoly of somehow cheating. In attempting to smooth things over, Florence arranges for a meeting between Freddie and Anatoly. Freddie instead goes out on the town and gets drunk (“One Night in Bangkok”). When Freddie doesn’t arrive for the meeting, Florence realizes she has feelings for Anatoly and Freddie, arriving late, catches her in Anatoly’s arms. Anatoly apologizes and Freddie agrees to accept his apology but only because a fan has offered him $100,000 to continue the match. He turns abusive to Florence, who moves out of his suite.
In the middle of the match, Anatoly decides to defect to the west, aided by Freddie’s press agent, Walter (Clifton Wood). He takes Florence with him and when questioned by reporters, justifies his decision by explaining that
Act two finds us in Budapest where we are asked to suspend disbelief and accept the fact that a Russian defector could safely travel behind the Iron Curtain only 3 months later to continue a chess match. For some reason which is not made clear, Walter, who aided Anatoly to defect, and who is really working for the CIA, is now working with Anatoly’s former assistant, KGB agent Molokov (Tim O’Laughlin) to convince Anatoly to return to Russia. In an attempt to pressure him, they arrange a meeting with Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana (Charlotte Mraz). Svetlana and Florence meet alone and admit that neither can give Anatoly all that he needs. They sing the hauntingly beautiful duet, “I know him so well,” a high point of the evening.
Anatoly is given many reasons for returning to Russia and must choose between his love for Florence and his love for his family. As he makes his decision, we realize that even international chess players are the pawns of their nation's diplomatic corps, security services, and marketing analysts.
The small DMTC orchestra does a superb job under the direction of Mark Ottinger II. Choreography by Tucker Tye Davis (who also plays the Arbiter) is particularly good in the Bangkok nightlife scene. The ensemble is strong, especially in the second act’s opening Hungarian folk song.
The set, designed by John Ewing, is a simple raked black and white chessboard, with the addition of neon signs (some even written in Thai) brought in for “One Night in Bangkok.”
Chess runs weekends through October 1 at the Varsity Theatre.