Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The show has music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (music), who comprise half of the Swedish pop group ABBA, and lyrics by Tim Rice, whose other credits include Evita and The Lion King. Playwright Richard Nelson contributed the book, which has been pared down substantially for this production.
The story, set in 1986, brings together chess masters Freddie Trumper (Kushnier), representing the U.S., and Anatoly Sergievsky (Morton), representing the Soviet Union, for a world championship, first in Bangkok and later in Budapest. Freddie's chess second, Florence (Paice), gets understandably tired of his moods and tantrums and begins spending more time with the unassuming Anatoly. Hovering in the shadows are Molokov (Christopher Bloch), Anatoly's second and a KGB agent, and Walter (Russell Sunday), a crass merchandiser who wants to make big money out of Freddie's fame.
The three leads know how to imbue their songs with the necessary subtext while selling them with appropriate pop-rock flair. Morton has both bravura moments (the propulsive "Where I Want to Be") and quietly moving ones ("Anthem," where he declares that his dedication to his homeland has nothing to do with borders on a map). Paice gets the heart-tugging ballads "Nobody's on Nobody's Side" and "Heaven Help My Heart," as well as the moving duet "I Know Him So Well" with Eleasha Gamble as another woman in Anatoly's life.
Kushnier, however, is handicapped by the unlikability of his character. Freddie is clearly based on hotheaded American chess master Bobby Fischera brilliant chess player, a terrible human beingand there's no reason why Florence should put up with his abuse. That said, he does get to show off his voice with "One Night in Bangkok" and his moment of self-justification, "Pity the Child."
Daniel Conway's gorgeous industrial-chic set and Chris Lee's minimalist lighting design maintain the crisp focus. Kathleen Geldard's costume design tends to stay with shades of black, white and gray, with a vaguely militaristic look for the eight-member ensemble.