Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In 1984, with President Ronald Reagan having branded the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and the similarly strident Margaret Thatcher ensconced at 10 Downing Street, tensions were razor sharp between the western allies and their nemesis to the east. That year, Chess appeared as a concept album that told a musical love story set in the strife of the Cold War. It was a story born of its time, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, of the Swedish pop phenomenon ABBA. The album was critically praisedRolling Stone called the score "dazzling"and commercially successful, spawning a smash hit single in "One Night in Bangkok." It was assumed that a stage production would be next, following the path of Rice's two earlier works (with Andrew Lloyd Weber), "Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.
Two years later the stage musical Chess opened in London. The concept album's sequence of songs were tied together with recitative, creating a sung-through rock opera. Like the album, the show proved a great success, and it continued to reflect the state of world diplomacy. Then, in 1988, Chess arrived in New York. The show was substantially revised for Broadway, inserting a musical book by playwright Richard Nelson that altered the narrative in significant ways. Still, the premise and the tone remained the same, and the world it mirrored had not changed very muchjust yet.
However, the American version of Chess received a markedly negative reception, with much of the blame going its book, deemed ponderous and illogical. The score continued to be admired, though less so than in London, the leads were roundly applauded and received award nominations, yet the show folded after just two months. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union, Chess acquired the aura of a cheesy parody of recent history. Even so, it continues to have fierce partisans who consider it a great show waiting for the right set of revisions at the right time.
Chess is set in the world of an international chess tournament between the American Freddie Trumper and the Soviet Anatoly Sergievsky. The tournament is divided between two sitesthe first set of games taking place in Bangkok, the second set in Budapest. Freddie has the demeanor of a spoiled American brat, said to be modeled after American chess-wiz Bobby Fisher. His second, who manages his affairs, is Florence Vassy, a native Hungarian taken from Budapest to the United States at age six after the 1956 Soviet invasion in which her mother was killed and her father disappeared, presumed dead. Once, she and Freddie had been lovers, but now they are all business, and his drama-queen antics increasingly frustrate her. Even worse, he has fallen under the spell of Walter, a media agent who craftily lines up endorsement contracts and arranges high profile interviews. Florence distrusts Walter and sees him turning Freddie from love of the game to pursuit of the dollar.
The Soviet player, Anatoly (in a bow to history, the current production refers to him throughout as "Russian"), is under the stern thumb of his second, Molokovwho in fact is a thinly disguised KGB agent. When a blow-up between Freddie and Anatoly gives the Russian and Florence a chance to be alone, they find more in common than they could have imagined, and desire overwhelms them. True, Anatoly is married, but he claims to have no feelings for his wife and seems ready to leave her for Florence.
Freddie's immature self-defeating behavior, Anatoly's apparent desire to abandon his former life, Molokov's determination to prevent that from happening, Florence's hope against hope that her father is still alive in Hungary, Walter's duplicitous back room dealingsall this blends together over two acts toward an emotional climax. It must be noted that it is the music, and not the text, that pumps blood into those emotions. Nothing in the dialogue convinces us, for example, that Florence and Anatoly are suddenly, improbably in love, but when they sing, we believe.
Sarah DeYong is fantastic as Florence, who emerges as the heart of the story. Her flashing eyes project the full spectrum of Florence's emotions. DeYong gives heart-felt, strong voice to powerhouse songs such as "Someone Else's Story", "Nobody's Side", "Heaven Help My Heart" and the truly beautiful "I Know Him So Well," a duet sung with Anatoly's wife Svetlana. She is played by Emma Foster, who depicts a scorched soul that hobbles onward, determined to survive. Carl Swanson is excellent as Anatoly, instilling him with earnest conviction and genuine feeling, allowing us to trust him as he makes excruciating choices. He has a gorgeous voice, especially forceful in "Where I Want to Be," "You and I," and "Anthem". Michael Burton plays Freddie, conveying the self-absorbed, easily derailed young man who seems to have been given too much too soon. He comes alive, backed by the energetic ensemble, in "One Night in Bangkok" and reveals his own demons with a powerfully sung "Pity the Child". Scott Dutton provides Molokov with the necessary degree of menace, and Jakob Gomes is gratingly sleazy as wheeler-dealer Walter. When the two join forces in "Let's Work Together," it is easy to believe that they are capable of whatever evil their ends require.
Bradley Donaldson and Jim Vogel co-direct this production, moving it briskly with scenes changing fluidly on a deceptively simple set designed by Will Slayden. With choreographer Marlo Teal, they have the ensemble moving with the angular forms of chess pieces, creating a sense of a forced social structure that places limits on movements and creates irrational boundaries, reaching its zenith with the brilliant staging of "Quartet." Chess was composed for a large ensemble to amplify the force of its many choral pieces. Here, vocal director Brody Meinke works with a modest ensemble of eight to create rich sounds that fully do justice to the score. Similarly, an eleven-piece band conducted by Dale Miller manages to provide the full sound the score needs to be effective.
Chess was written as a big show. Its initial productions had massive set pieces, elaborate effects, and huge casts. In the intimate space of the Gremlin Theatre's new home (put to such good use hosting numerous other companies) everything is, scaled back. Here the audience is close to the passing drama, and the absence of magnitude draws focus on to the small gestures and quiet phrases. It works beautifully.
Be not misled, Chess remains a problematic show with a book that makes numerous illogical leaps. To enjoy it requires one to overlook the gaps in the book and to embrace the abundant richness of its music and the intensity of its feelings. Chameleon has mounted a production that pulls all the right stops to make Chess, in spite of its inherent flaws, a winner.
Chess, a Chameleon Theatre Circle production, continues through December 17, 2017, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $25.00; seniors (age 62+), students with ID, and patrons with MN Fringe button: $22.00. For tickets go to chameleontheatre.org or call 952-232-0814.
Book: Richard Nelson; Music: Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson; Lyrics: Tim Rice; Director: Bradley Donaldson and Jim Vogel; Choreography: Marlo Teal; Vocal Director: Brody Meinke; Conductor: Dale Miller; Scenic Design: Willy Slayden; Costume Design: Kathleen Martin; Light Design: Jake Berg; Sound Design: Forest Godfrey; Prop Design: Mark Steffer; Stage Managers: Mike Evans and Erin Green Vita; Assistant Stage Manager: Meegan Johnson; Executive Director: Megan West.
Cast: Tyus Beeson (ensemble), Frank Blomgren (Gregor), Michael Burton (Freddie), Sarah DeYong (Florence), Scott Dutton (Molokov), Alex Engelsgjerd (ensemble), Emma Foster (Svetlana), Jakob Gomez (Walter), Katie Jenson (ensemble), Shawn A. Krueger (Arbiter), Brody Meinke (ensemble), Megan Navarrette (ensemble), Carl Swanson (Anatoly), Jim Vogel (Vocalist), and Elizabeth Wolfe (ensemble).