Signature Theatre's Chess

And then there was Chess. The history of this famous (infamous) musical has been well documented. Check out wikipedia for the info. The musical has received cult status, inordinately loved by some, rarely seen, and downright panned by others. It’s one of those musicals that usually gets dismissed with a “the book has problems.”

And well, frankly, that is the truth. Director Eric Shaeffer and a talented cast give this production their all. They embrace the cheesetasticness of the 80’s rock score, courtesy ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson. The score has been often been cited as the musical’s strength, and this production trades on that, creating an atmosphere that feels more like a rock concert that a piece of musical theatre. The set, designed by Daniel Conway, is very architectural. The costumes (Kathleen Geldard) and lights (Chris Lee) are the same. Compare the lines in Florence’s first dress, with the straight neon lights that line the back entrances, and so on. The choreography also matches up, with sharp and quick movements.

Jeremy Kushnier is convincing as the arrogant and charming American Freddie. Jill Paice gives impressive vocals as Florence. The cast is strong all around. But. But. Nothing can change the fact that Richard Nelson, the book writer, has absolutely no grasp of the dramatic. There is no build in this show. Every single song is written as the great emotional climax. The actors are forced to continually belt the loud rock score and hence they are not allowed any room for emotional subtlety. Some of Paice’s nicest moments come when the score calms down, but these moments don’t last. The show’s ballads only go one for a verse or so before they switch back into full out rock. The book also prevents the audience from ever caring about these characters. We are never shown why Freddie and Florence love each other. We are supposed to believe that Florence and Anatoly fall deeply in love with each other, but the script literally gives us two lines in which to see that relationship develop. When Anatoly and Florence sing "We've seen it all / Chasing our hearts' desire" you can't help but wonder, "Really? When?" Freddie spends most of the show being a whiney asshole. We don’t learn about his past until late in the second act (‘Pity the Child’) and by then, it’s too late to excuse his behavior. As a note, the book for Chess has been changed throughout its history, and the order of songs has swapped more than once. I’ve never seen the musical before, so I cannot speak to whether this version, even with its weaknesses, is better than the musical has been in the past.

But if you can let go of the story and bop your head along to this 80's rock score as the cast sings their hearts out, you'll enjoy this production.

3 stars
Through October 3


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