Musicals presented as part of the Mainstage Series at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) are rarely disappointments, which makes their current presentation of Chess all the more surprising. Despite some strong performances and a great score to sing, there are too many missteps by the creative team at CCM, which, combined with the show's own internal liabilities, make for less than stellar theatergoing.
Chess tells the story of Freddie, a brash American, and Anatoly, the reigning champion from Russia, as they compete in the Chess World Championships. Set in the early 1970s against the backdrop of the Cold War, the show centers on the match, a romantic triangle involving the two players and Florence, Freddie's second, and the political entanglements which encircle the proceedings.
The musical is a pop/rock-opera in the vein of Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, but with a more modern tale being told. The show originated as a concert album in 1984, and was then staged in London as an almost totally sung-through piece. It was significantly rewritten for its 1988 Broadway premiere with much more dialogue, new songs, and tweaks to almost all of the characters and plot lines.
The major appeal of Chess is its extremely tuneful score. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, the score features soaring ballads, beautiful choral numbers, effective sung dialogue, and quality songs with a strong rock sensibility. Rice's lyrics are nicely layered, contain witty word play, and convey clear imagery. Songs like "Anthem," "Someone Else's Story," "You and I" and the international hits "One Night In Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well" make this one of the most well known and beloved scores from the 1980s.
The book for the show has been rewritten numerous times for the various stage and concert versions of the piece. CCM uses Richard Nelson's take on the material as seen on Broadway. This version is heavy-handed at times, and too episodic for its own good. Still, there is an appropriate balance of romance, international intrigue (including spies and a defection), conflict, and historical perspective. But the story doesn't provide characters which are easy to root for, and the subject matter itself isn't very compelling. Chess flopped on Broadway, and its failure to showcase the songs within the framework of a good story is most often blamed for the outcome.
The usually sure-handed Director Aubrey Berg can't seem to overcome the story's issues, as this production is plodding much of the time, with scene transitions being particularly slow. The emotional pull of the show is also less than expected. Mr. Berg does a great job of staging several numbers on the raked stage that resembles a chess board where cast members move as game pieces to emulate the strategy of the characters in manipulating each other, but his use of the lighted modular towers that consist of much of the set design is vague. The choreography by Diane Lala is executed too sloppily at times, and the typically vibrant "One Night In Bangkok" seems stiff. Stephen Goers leads an impressive sounding 25-piece band playing the show's robust orchestrations.
CCM has double cast the four leads for Chess, with one cast designated as the Armageddon cast and the other as Sudden Death, with the Armageddon cast reviewed here. As Anatoly, Julian R. Decker displays splendid vocals (including a powerful "Anthem" which closes act one), a spot-on Russian accent, and the conflicted, roller-coaster of emotions needed for the character. Blaine Krauss captures the self-absorbed and childish nature of Freddie accurately, and shows off strong vocals throughout, especially in his late act two solo "Pity The Child." Aubrey Ireland isn't as strong a singer as we usually see in the female leads at CCM, but she conveys the strong-willed seriousness of Florence capably and uses some effective vocal variations on "Nobody's Side." Kathryn Boswell makes the most of the smaller part of Anatoly's wife Svetlana and sings well in the role's two songs. Max Clayton is a forthright Arbiter and dances wonderfully throughout. Collin Kessler (KGB agent Molokov) and Kath McMillan (Freddie's agent Walters) show off solid vocals, well defined characterizations, and stage presence. The ensemble performs admirably, especially in singing the many choral numbers of the piece.
Mark Halpin's scenic design includes some nicely detailed pieces which place the action specifically in either Bangkok or Hungary, and the chess hall is sleek and slick. However, his movable towers with neon lights are vague and poorly used. The lighting by Alan Hanson is handsome and theatrical. The costumes by Reba Senske are too uniform at times (was there only one color and style of overcoat available in the world in 1974?), but are otherwise time appropriate and attractive.
Theatergoers know the quality of the score of Chess, but the book continues to force it into the losing side of checkmate most of the time. CCM's production showcases its talented students well, but the design, direction, and choreography don't raise the production to the normal high standards to which Cincinnati audiences are accustomed. CCM's production ran from October 25 - 28, 2012.