With so much national press out there about this production – in part because of the Regional Theatre Tony and for its director, Eric Schaeffer of the “smash hit” Million Dollar Quartet (their words, not mine) – I am somewhat surprised to report that the Signature Theatre production of Chess is really not that impressive. According to reports in The Washington Post and elsewhere, Schaeffer impressed himself upon the Shubert Organization and the creators of the show to let him pick and choose from among four different versions of the book, though only Richard Nelson’s Broadway version is credited in the program. Considering that the piece has always been problematic (not unlike another seemingly unworkable, but beloved title, Merrily We Roll Along), I think Mr. Schaeffer deserves some kudos for having the wherewithal to try this; especially given the recently televised London concert version, which had all of its writers concluding that that was probably the definitive version after all (of course, they are still tinkering).
Unfortunately, he didn’t pick and choose the right combination for my tastes. What was always good about Chess is still what is good about Chess; what didn’t work still doesn’t work. Some of that has to be the book (it is), but the direction and concept of this production, as well as an egregious lack of attention to detail, are really what bring down this potentially huge production. (I can’t confirm it, but it is not unreasonable to think that Signature Theatre has bigger plans for this show. Two words: Glory Days.)
Flat screen projections remind us throughout that this is 1986. Snippets of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech come flashing on the screen and blaring out of the sound system (did someone from American Idiot consult on this?) And yet, almost nothing of this production has the look or feel of 1986 – a very specific time – the Berlin Wall wasn’t down, and the USSR was enemy number one – yes, a very specific time. Scenic designer Daniel Conway has given us a set that is part CNN news room, part futuristic flight deck and part punk/discotheque. That punk/discotheque part is the closest thing the set comes to evoking the time period. Kathleen Geldard’s costumes also seem to be a mish mash of styles - Molokov wears a ponytail, Freddie wears 90’s style pants and colored shirts, Anatoly wears off the rack Brooks Brothers, while only Florence, in her mini boots and smallish ensemble (see picture below) even remotely resembles 1986. (A thought: were the designers, in mixing up time periods trying to show the universality of the themes and the show itself? If so, I say: they don't really tinker much with Oklahoma! or South Pacific - both with remote time periods, but universal themes...)
And then there is the ensemble, the human embodiment of all that is wrong with this confused production. They are all in black, futuristic army/clubbing outfits, with various leather accouterments, ranging from spiky belts to hard core boots. In short, they are dressed almost identically to the cast of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. I bring this up because for days after seeing the show, I couldn’t put my finger on where I had seen this before, and lo and behold it was the aforementioned video/short film by Ms. Jackson. I will leave it to you to look up videos of this production and that song, but trust me when I say that Karma Kamp’s choreography is, to be kind, an homage to the video. A curious combination of exciting dance moves and military precision, the dancing throughout can’t seem to decide if it wants to be Broadway flashy or Cold War military drill - just like the production. In any case, Janet Jackson’s video debuted in 1989.
Given the reputation of the theatre company and the caliber of talent they draw (Chita Rivera and George Hearn performed there in The Visit, for example), other anachronisms throughout the show are disappointing and call to mind lesser community theatre companies, not Tony winning regional theatres. And yes, attention to such details matters, particularly in a show that concerns itself with the minutiae of game rules, perceived slights and espionage, not to mention the constant reminders in the score and on those anachronistic flat screens that we are in 1986. Plastic water bottles at the bar? I don’t think so. A foil pull off lid on a cup of yogurt that required no stirring? Definitely not in 1986, and yet both were on stage. OK, so the water bottle thing may be picky, but the yogurt cup is a key prop in a major plot point.
But perhaps the most outrageous and unlikely inclusion here is the final scene of act one. In it, the Russian Anatoly sings the gorgeous “Anthem” as part of a press conference. All of the key players up to that point are there, including a press corps. The setting is a parking garage. Just as things come to a head, the KGB (I am assuming as they are all speaking Russian or Hungarian, definitely NOT CIA English) bursts in and starts shooting at Anatoly! That’s right, folks. The KGB, notorious for its stealth and secrecy, announces itself and shoots at a crowd of people, in public, missing all of them, including their intended target. Really?
Still I could forgive almost all of that had Mr. Schaeffer and team come up with a cohesive and solid point of view. All of it is not his/their fault, as the book scenes have always been a problem, leaving me to wonder why the ABBA guys don’t just write all of the dialogues like most of the songs already are. But I digress. The logo of the show is clearly a woman’s boot, which appears to be stomping over the King chess piece. Given that there is really only one main woman, Florence, is she stomping on Freddie or Anatoly or both? It’s a love triangle, right? I’ll go with both. Another given is that the show as performed here is clearly skewed toward Florence being the heroine, rather than either man being the hero. (An excellent choice, given the cast, but more on that in a minute!). Or is the show really just a highly symbolic rant about political relations? Given that the program has an article about the Game of Chess and the Cold War , and a rather well-publicized pre-opening scavenger hunt around DC, including the National Spy Museum (no joke!), one has to guess that the Cold War/political relations were meant to be the thrust of the show. Rather than choosing one, or better yet allowing one to inform/comment on the other, the production seems to want it both ways: to be part Clancy spy thriller and part international romance – The Hunt for the Tuscan Sun, maybe?
Fortunately, there is the one wonderful thing that makes this Chess work: the score, which remains one of Broadway’s very best, book be damned. And orchestrator David Holcenberg, along with conductor Jenny Cartney and a 10 piece orchestra really makes the score work. It sounds amazing, and the quality is Broadway class for sure. There really isn’t a clunker amongst any of them, including my favorite word play song of all time, “A Model of Decorum and Tranquility,” the powerful “Nobody’s Side” and the excellent ballad, “Someone Else’s Story.” The other great ones are here, but not listed because their renditions here are not superlative, but rather range from decent to solid. One note about the score as included here: I must applaud the company for excising the “Merchandising of Chess” sequence which really would have added a third or fourth dimension to the muddle.
And now about that cast, a hybrid of Broadway, top regional theatre actors, and a few new locals, too. I have to say, a gamer cast (pun not intended) will be hard to find these days. Their energy and commitment to the piece gives the whole affair an urgent and much needed vibrancy. While the dances themselves seem to add to the confusion of the production, they are very well executed. “One Night in Bangkok,” though, gets dangerously close to campy sleaze, with such earnest writhing and groping (and one embarrassing bit of gymnastics) missing the point of the song and the character singing it (below, look closely).
The character of Walter is a bit of an enigma. In act one he is a churlish, self-absorbed, possessive asshole. In act two, he comes right out of the gate being downright friendly and with everyone’s best interest at heart. That I fault with the writing (and maybe the picking and choosing) and the direction. Couldn’t Mr. Schaeffer have helped local actor Russell Sunday work on a subtle arc for his character? Instead, Mr. Sunday comes across as rather amateurish because both personalities are so abrupt and stereotypically played. There is, however, a nice bit of nuance to his vocals. When he sings, you can see why he was hired and why the whole show needs to be sung through.
Of all the characters, I think I was most disappointed in the Arbiter, played with conviction and not much else, by Chris Sizemore. Again, I’m thinking at least some of this has to do with the cut and paste nature of this version and a lack of directorial vision as much as anything else. A good deal of the character’s sung parts have been cut, and what is left makes him all referee and no cheerleader. Played like a prison warden, the one character that could help us see why chess has such a passionate following does nothing but keep us scared straight.
The two supporting Russian characters, Molokov and Svetlana, are ably played by Christopher Bloch and Eleasha Gamble, respectively. And here we can see the duality of the USSR, and perhaps by accident, the most meaningful subtext of the evening. Bloch plays Molokov with a nice degree of emotion, letting us see that even as he is a puppet of his regime, he can recognize the human element his superiors care nothing about. Sure he lies and manipulates, but not always for personal gain. Then there is Svetlana, who under Ms. Gamble’s care, comes across as having a strong façade, pro-Soviet and wronged wife, while under it all she is all too human and in pain as the man she loves wrestles with freedom, a new woman and his conscience. She loses no matter what, but given this performance, you know that somehow she will survive – and probably thrive in just a few years.
Given that all three of the leads are Broadway folks, there are high expectations on all three. If the third preview is any indication, I’m not sure how either of the men will have a voice much further into the run. Both struggled with pitch issues and scratchy voices, one has placement issues that cause literal screaming of higher notes, while the other was not in full command of the intricate lyrics. This production does set one thing perfectly straight: Americans are piggish, self-centered, self-entitled show offs. It is decidedly anti-American, and I’m OK with that. At least it is a point of view. The problem here is that Jeremy Kushnier, who puts a RENT-style spin on every syllable that comes out of his mouth, has found not one likable thing about Freddie to show us. Why on earth would Florence feel anything but contempt for this man-child? He is so arrogant, selfish and cruel that even when he gets to his perilously one-note performance of “Pity the Child” the whole thing falls flat. We are meant to really feel something for him after this gush of emotional baggage. Not in this production. Oh, he got the requisite “woo hoos” from the audience, but more for volume and in-your-face audacity than for any kind of cathartic value. True, as staged, we aren’t sure if it is all in his head, anyway – he starts the scene staring at the chess board, and ends the number in the exact same position. No matter; when that song doesn’t make you feel, it is a lost cause.
Interestingly, the production really focuses on the “Nobody’s Side” number. It underscores their YouTube reel, and is on their show t-shirts. It is also, regrettably, a big curtain call number, too. Yes, after everything is said and done the cast launches into a full-frontal aural assault belting out that number like a Les Miz anthem. Again, did someone from American Idiot consult here? (They, too, have a misguided sung curtain call.) Perhaps, most unfortunately, “Nobody’s Side” sums up what makes this Chess more stalemate than checkmate. It wants to be all sides, and as such, nobody’s side wins, least of all the audience. Still, any professional staging of Chess is a win for musical theatre fans.
(Photos by Scott Suchman)
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