Broadway Center Stage: Chess, The Kennedy Center

There's a special frisson in the air when you are in a theatre full of the exact same kind of nerds, a sort of joyful communion that exists when the special give and take between audience and performer is ramped up for an Event.  You can tell it's there in a few different ways- the sell-out crowds, for one. The bathroom queue conversation is another: "How many stagings have you gotten to see? What are your thoughts on [notable stage actor name]'s version? Do you think they'll incorporate the special lyrics from the Australian production in [second act song]?"  And then there are the flurries of applause that break out when a beloved actor that no lay person would ever recognize steps center stage, or the passionate inhalations of breath scattered across the theatre when the song you've been waiting years to hear this particular actor sing starts to swell.

Yep. Those nerds.  You know them.  You may well be one of them- I certainly am.

Ramin Karimloo and ensemble (Teresa Wood)


CHESS is the inaugural production of the Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage series of concert musicals, and it's the perfect pick.  It's exactly the kind of show that musical theatre fans have hooked their hearts onto for years, an imperfect darling.  The score is beloved, with music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyrics by Tim Rice, but everyone knows that the book has always been a notorious mess (or at least, the kind of "everyone" that cares passionately about musical theatre).  Almost every production has tried varying levels of rewrites, hoping to find the exact alchemy that will blend chess and cold war politics and the stories of three central characters that have never quite hung together comfortably.  This has been no exception, with book writer Danny Strong tackling this particular gordian knot, and finding far more success than any production I've ever seen.

With Strong's book in place, the production feels anchored in reality through multiple lenses. Characters that have long felt like ciphers upon whom plot points are written start to feel more like human beings, especially with actors like Raúl Esparza, Karen Olivo, and Ramin Karimloo leading the way.  While some details still feel a little wonky and the ending doesn't quite hang together, it's an absolutely incredible achievement for a problem that has long felt unsolvable.  One major change is that more than in any previous version, the world chess championship is seen by both sides as a central tool to be used during real world events.  A win by either side has direct results in negotiations and treaties, and concessions that might exist under one leader will change abruptly if an election in America swings in an unexpected direction.  Bradley Dean as the Soviet Molokov and Sean Allan Krill as his CIA counterpart, Walter, do excellent work to raise the stakes higher and higher.  Notably, Bryce Pinkham serves as Narrator to the story, giving the audience the guidance through both the ins and outs of the history of chess and cold war nuclear threats, while also taking a turn within the story as the Arbiter of the tournaments.  It's a pity that there wasn't a way to give Ruthie Ann Miles more to do as Svetlana, the Russian champion's abandoned wife brought in as emotional blackmail in the second half of the evening, but without being able to revamp more than the book, there's only so much Strong can accomplish.  Miles does excellent work, but it's disappointingly fitting that her only solo turn is the song "Someone Else's Story," as CHESS continues to relegate the character to a supporting role.

As the Soviet chess player, Karimloo's Anatoly struggles to find his place in a world where the Soviet chess program has consumed and regulated his entire life, and which he has blamed for his lack of connection to anyone or anything outside of that narrow world.  When he meets Karen Olivo's Florence, he finds himself hopelessly charmed, and for the audience, it feels like a love story worth rooting for. Florence may represent everything Anatoly never thought he could have, but Olivo keeps us engaged in Florence's own journey to be more than a muse and to become a lead character in her own life.  Not only can Olivo give us an absolutely show-stopping "Nobody's Side," but she can also make us see that Florence herself is ready to be more than just the love-interest-torn-between-two-men-oh-no, and that's the story I would love to see continue the most.

Raúl Esparza and Karen Olivo (Teresa Wood)

It feels as though Raúl Esparza's American player, Freddie Trumper, has had the most careful attention of any of the main trio as this production was retooled.  He's more than unrepentent, bombastic asshole; rather, we see that he's struggling with mental illness that is exacerbated by the exact environment that his gifts have led him into--and he's also an asshole.  In Esparza's hands, both sides of the character are validated and given life.  He doesn't get a free pass for his actions, but even if hold him accountable, we can see him as a fully realized human being.  There's also real glee from Esparza in some of the character's most outsize pretensions, even as we feel real pathos when we see his weaknesses ruthlessly exploited or manipulated.  Esparza's second act showcase, "Pity the Child," is treated with the care of a Shakespearean soliloquy; in his hands, we see every shifting nuance as Esparza ignites the stage with Freddie's devastating self-knowledge, before walking out of his own spotlight as the music swells into the final crescendo. 

The staging of "Pity the Child" is just one instance of very intelligent work by Mayer as director, pushing the definition of semi-staging as far as it can go while still benefitting by working within its confines.  Lorin Latarro's choreography is sharp and well-executed by the ensemble, and supported by the design work of David Rockwell's simple set, Clint Ramos's costumes, and Kevin Adams excellent lighting.  Darrel Maloney's projections were well-executed, but unfortunately were inconsistently integrated into the overall production.

As a limited-run concert, CHESS is a resounding success, and one hopes, a sign of what the Kennedy Center will continue to achieve with this series.  As a night at the theatre for this particular community of theatre nerds, it was a dream come true to see a misfit show come to life with élan and passion and talent.  As a potential game changer for a musical that has never quite gotten it right, this is one to watch.  The nerds are ready, and I think this time, the audiences will be, too.




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