What you are about to see is an intimate version of Chess. I call this a chamber piece because I have pared down the show in an attempt to get to the root of its universal story, told through its hauntingly beautiful music.
What is Chess about? It's about three people, their ideals, their lives and their love and beyond that it is about one woman and her search for herself. It is not about governments, or philosophical ideals, it is about people. People who are manipulated by governments who believe in and compromise their ideals, but people nonetheless. I wanted to look into the specific motivations and the pulse of these people and attempt to tell their stories. After all, story is what drama has been about for thousands of years. Spectacle has been important too, but I believe the story always wins out.
Messrs. Rice, Andersson, Ulvaeus and Nelson have written a timeless piece that withstands the rapidly changing political winds when considered against the backdrop of humanity. The Soviet Union is no more. To me this is of little consequence when realizing this piece.
If you look at these two adversaries presented in this piece you will find that it is about more universal ideals than the US vs USSR. It is a metaphor for the powers that manipulate us every day. After all, the game of "chess" is merely a metaphor for two opposing armies trying to protect their king and capture their opponent's monarch. What could be more theatrical that that?
- Daniel Henning
"All across the country, critics have seen the musical 'Chess' and cried 'Check Mate!' And yet the show, a Cold War love triangle told in an insistent but largely personality-free pop score, refuses to yield.
Originally directed by Trevor Nunn, 'Chess' opened in London in 1986 where it was a high-tech hit. It later bombed on Broadway, as well as on its refurbished national tour directed by Des McAnuff in 1990.
Its love story involves an American woman with Eastern European roots and two chess champions, one a bratty American, the other a soulful Russian, hoping to defect. They play out their moves against the backdrop of political intrigue at world champion chess tournaments in Bangkok and in Budapest, amid a gaggle of hangers-on, reporters and CIA and KGB agents.
Regional theatres continue to produce the musical, which just opened at the Hudson Theatre. Produced by the Blank Theatre Company, this version is pruned and infinitely more bearable than it was on Broadway. With 'Chess,' it seems, less is more.
A full orchestra has been reduced to one piano and one synthesizer, with the hard-working Gene Mattison manning both. If you can imagine the Cold War paranoia set to self-important pop songs, you can imagine the music, by former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulveus, and with lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Richard Nelson. This production has wisely cut 'One Night in Bangkok,' a hyperventilating tour of the city's flesh palaces, which as a single sold more than four million copies. This is a quieter, more contemplative 'Chess,' with an emphasis on the love story.
And the love story is captivating, thanks to the casting of two appealing actors with fine voices. Marcia Mitzman radiates decency and worry as Florence, the American who falls suddenly in love with the Boris Spassky character, a sincere Russian named Anatoly (Sean Smith, who was last seen as Leon Czolgosz, the McKinley assassin in Stephen Sondheim's 'Assassins.').
Florence may have slept with both of the leading male characters, but as musical heroines go, she is rather dully virtuous in spirit. But the presence of Smith's tender Anatoly seems to embolden and lighten Florence. They make such a good couple that they give you something to care about in the musical's chilly spy-novel terrain.
As Florence's former lover, the obnoxious Freddie, Douglas Sills gives in to Michael Bolton-type flourishes in his singing, making Freddie seem more fussy than he needs to be. This is an unfortunate choice, particularly when Freddie sings a self-pitying song that comes entirely from left field, with no warning, about his parents' neglect.
Under Daniel Henning's direction, the crowd scenes look cluttered and sometimes clumsy. But Henning does good work with the lovers, particularly when they are crumbling under the pressure of two countries pulling them apart from each other. In a program note, Henning notes that the musical is 'not about government or philosophical ideals, it is about people.' To his credit, 'Chess' is a little more about people than it ever was before."
--Laurie Winer, Los Angeles Times
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