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REVIEW: Rarely Performed Chess Check-Mates (Chameleon Theatre Circle)

The cast of the Chameleon Theatre Circle production of Chess. Photo by JHinz Design and Photo.

Chameleon Theatre Circle is now an itinerant company, freed of the black box constraints of its longtime home at the Ames Center. As the company dances around the metro region from production to production, it’s time for the company’s directors and designers to show what they can do in different spaces. So it is with Chess, a Cold War musical about battling lovers and chess champions now playing at Gremlin Theater in St. Paul.

The Story of Chess

The ensemble of reporters – a part of an explosion of world interest in chess in the 1970s. Much of the story of the musical is shaped by the 1972 match between the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky and the United States’ Bobby Ficsher. Photo by JHinz Design and Photo.

Chess is a strange bird in the world of musicals. Deeply invested in the Cold War politics and showmanship of the 1980s, its songs were written by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus after their band ABBA broke apart. Its score is well-beloved overseas; it regularly appears in UK listeners’ top 10 lists of musicals in BBC polls. A West End production ran for three solid years from 1986-1989, using the latest in stage and projection technology to heighten the drama of U.S.-Soviet competition long before reality television was even a dream. Its American track record is…not quite the same.

The West End production of Chess had its libretto written by Tim Rice, with most of the action and reaction packed into the show’s songs – only a few minutes were neither sung nor underscored. The 1988 Broadway production of Chess tried a completely different tact, re-envisioning the work using a more conventional book written by Richard Nelson. By the time the Broadway version opened, the Cold War had inconveniently started to thaw. The Soviet Union implemented democratic reforms, East Germany opened its borders, and the U.S. and USSR publicly sought rapport at the Olympics and United Nations, causing much of the atmosphere of brinksmanship and nonviolent confrontation to evaporate. Real-life events had checkmated Chess on Broadway, and the show closed after just two months on Broadway.

Much of this would be a moot point except for the musical’s ongoing lease on life. In the 1990s, Chess became the sleeper hit of American high school theatre, building a new audience as schools and then regional theatres test-drove new versions of the script developed by Tim Rice. (Most of these versions mix elements of the Broadway and West End plots, with an intermediate amount of dialogue.) The show has also became a regular feature for charity benefit concerts, including a 2003 concert featuring the rising star Josh Groban as Anatoly. After almost 30 years away, productions of Chess are being prepared for the West End and Broadway in 2018.

The Review

Freddie (Michael Burton) and Anatoly (Carl Swanson) face off. Photo by JHinz Design and Photo.

Although blessed with beautiful music, Chess is also notorious for its difficulty. Its songs are immensely varied, often require powerful and wide ranges, and require great endurance and flexibility. The Chameleon Theatre Circle has assembled a fine quartet of primary leads for the task: Anatoly (Carl Swanson), Florence (Sarah DeYong), Freddie (Michael Burton), and Molokov (Scott Dutton). They have some strong voices and carry the show through the script’s weaker moments.

Musically, the space is generally well-used, with the pit ensemble directed by Dale Miller in the back of the space, behind the giant chessboard that makes up the stage. In a notable improvement from the company’s old home at the Ames Center, there were no long-running sound issues during the show.

Co-directors Bradley Donaldson and Jim Vogel seem to have decided on “close” as the show’s guiding principle. Cast placements were generally very far downstage – a good principle for proscenium theatres, but a little monotonous in Gremlin Theater’s thrust space. Many songs also had the actors standing facing into the pillars at the corner of the stage, which was simply odd. The best seats are in the second and third rows.

The choreography by Mario Teal has a consistently angular quality to it that recalls the movement of chess pieces, especially in the opening number. Some later choreography also evokes Slavic folk dances. The ensemble is kept busy, constantly swapping out costumes and appearing in different guises as the story jumps from country to country. Will Slayden’s scenic design is minimalist: there’s the chessboard stage, some curtained columns, and a few pieces of furniture, and that’s it. Kathleen Martin and Jake Berg’s costumes and lighting are functional and muted in palette, keeping the focus on the chess games and associated drama.

A few scenes are played with more modern interpretations of interactions and events, which is distracting when it occurs – not because of the loaded interactions, but because of how it changed the tone of a distinctly period piece. Still, the main reason that you come to see Chess is the music – and, oh, there are a lot of great songs here to love. Tenor Michael Burton shines in a series of challenging pieces, including “Pity the Child” – one of the most darkly beautiful and difficult songs that Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus ever wrote. As Florence, Sarah DeYoung performs a memorable “Someone Else’s Story” and strongly sells the rushed romance with Anatoly in several bewitching duets with Carl Swanson. Swanson’s finest solo piece is the end of Act I, with the simply named “Anthem” – a paean to apolitical patriotism and liberation. Swanson and DeYoung’s final duet, “You and I”, is heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

Sadly, the version of Chess being performed by the Chameleon Theatre Circle does not include “The Russian Machine”, Molokov’s signature song. Dutton (Molokov) has a fine bass voice and it would have been nice to hear the actor featured in a full-length solo song. About that, well, as Florence/DeYoung sings, “Heaven Help My Heart”.

Chess plays through December 17 at Gremlin Theater in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine