Chess, Signature Theatre

What makes a good musical? Is there some sort of formula made up of the intricate relations between melody, lyrics, book, with the possible variables of dance and spectacle and so on? And hey- let’s not make the mistake of discounting spectacle, as Aristotle certainly didn’t, so neither should we. But what about those unpredictable variables of sentiment? What about performance? How do we weigh in that special something that can sometimes happen between an audience and the actors onstage?

Of course, we all know that it’s silly to even talk of a universal formula for great theatre. There are as many different ways of reckoning what the definition of “great theatre” even IS for it to be worthwhile pursuing. Personally, I reserve the right to fall prey to the same paroxysms of joy over Sondheim as for “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.

Now, let me also get something else clear. I discovered “Chess” while in high school and have been waiting to see a fully staged version of this show for more than ten years. “Chess”, for me, was my original London concept double-CD. I read the plot synopsis in the liner notes, but didn’t CARE- all I needed was the songs.
So when I finally got to see Signature’s “Chess” this past weekend, it was inevitable that my inner 14 year-old was going to be doing backflips of joy. But “Chess”, you may say, is infamous for its problems- what kind of 27 year-old are you if you admit that Current You was just as giddy?

Well, TOO BAD. I thought “Chess” was FAB. Let me tell you why.

There is every reason why “Chess” has a bad rep- the book is just as bad as the rumors say. It is ABYSMAL. It is LAUGHINGLY BAD. It DOESN’T MATTER.
The core of “Chess” is its songs. Get those in place and you’re golden, and with its three leads (Jill Paice, Euan Morton, and Jeremy Kushnier), Signature’s production has it made. They sing the BEJEEZUS out of the score, electrifying the room and the audience over and over again. The three actors also do their best to flesh out their characters and largely succeed- the most powerful moment all night is Kushnier’s ‘Pity the Child’, which is the show’s best example of uniting character and song. Kushnier does a fantastic job of taking his misogynistic, arrogant Freddie Trumper and breaking him apart in front of the audience, piece by piece. It’s a pity that the show doesn’t provide the actors with more opportunities like this, but what we do have is a whole lot of salty goodness and fun and that SCORE, that silly and wonderful SCORE.

There are other drawbacks to the show beyond the book, of course. I’m a little tired of the black costume/ metal scaffolding look we keep seeing at Signature. Karma Camp’s choreography for the ensemble is, well, unfortunate, turning a group of highly talented performers into a militaristic Dread Pirate Roberts corps de ballet. ‘Unfortunate” is generous. I also tired pretty damn quickly of the gimmick of flashing pictures of Kushnier and Morton’s faces on flat screen TVs every time Paice sang about either man. Trust me- we remember what they look like.

In the end, I feel like the drawbacks are just not worth dwelling on. I had a HELL of a lot of fun seeing talented people kicking ass and taking names in a show I’ve always wanted to see. I see no shame in having a ball at the theatre, and that’s what this production was for me. Is my life changed? Nope. Am I going to rock out a little harder the next time I listen to my “Chess” CD, remembering this performance? Oh HELL YES. In fact, I’ve been doing that all week. I tip my imaginary hat to you, Signature. So does my teenage self.


Anonymous said…
I liked it so much I had to see it three times. The casting was perfect except for Anatoly's wife seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. She was supposed to be as captivating and beautiful as Florence but wasn't even close. Also, after seeing the arbiter played by Sizemore, I didn't appreciate Gardiner sub'ing in his place last Sunday.
I wish I could buy the soundtrack for this performance of Chess. I guess the commercial version will have to do.

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