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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Chess

Also see Susan's review of In the Next Room and Nick's interview with Euan Morton

Chess
Jill Paice and Euan Morton
The musical Chess has been a hodgepodge since its original London staging in 1986 and Broadway debut in 1988—and no two versions of the show have been the same—but that makes the strong production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, a welcome surprise. It benefits from having Broadway performers Jill Paice, Euan Morton and Jeremy Kushnier in the lead roles, and from the wise decision by director Eric Schaeffer to emphasize the emotional tangles among these characters and minimize the surrounding story of Cold War espionage played out on the chessboard.

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 Fischer—a brilliant chess player, a terrible human being—and 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.

Signature Theatre
Chess
August 10th – September 26th
Music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Based on an idea by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson
Gregor: Michael Kramer
Young Florence: Rachel Boyd or Anna Grace Nowalk
Anatoly Sergievsky: Euan Morton
Molokov: Christopher Bloch
Arbiter: Chris Sizemore
Freddie Trumper: Jeremy Kushnier
Florence: Jill Paice
Walter: Russell Sunday
Nikolai: Gregory Maheu
Svetlana: Eleasha Gamble
Ensemble: Jonathan Atkinson, Jamie Eacker, James Gardiner, Gregory Maheu, Katie McManus, Christopher Mueller, Bayla Whitten, Rachel Zampelli
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Choreography by Karma Camp
Music supervision and orchestrations: David Holcenberg
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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