Even some of the most devoted fans of musical theater may have trouble sorting out the history of "Chess," a work that brought together the talents of notable lyricist Tim Rice and the 'Bs' of the iconic pop group ABBA, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.
The project picked up admirers and detractors as it moved from the initial concept album in 1984 to the London stage premiere two years later and the Broadway flop of '88. Assorted touring productions and concert versions around the world since then have added to the musical's mystique, while also confusing the little issue of plot - each new manifestation seems to come with another revision to the show's story line and song progression.
Now comes a fresh game of "Chess," courtesy of the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre. Don't count on this being the last word - this product may just be perpetually tinker-able - but do expect to be consistently entertained.
Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer has done a masterful job shaving off extra pounds from the original book by Richard Nelson and getting the storyline more tightly focused on the love triangle that has always been at the heart of it. The song order has been reshuffled a bit, too.
The show centers around the character of Florence, the Hungarian-born woman who arrives in Bangkok in 1986 for the world championship chess match as colleague and love interest of Freddie Trumper, a brilliant American player with swelled-head syndrome (remember Bobby Fischer?).
Partway through the match, Florence's affections shift to Freddie's Russian competitor, Anatoly Sergievsky. The fact that Anatoly is married proves a minor obstacle; that he defects to stay by her side becomes a little more problematic.
The original trappings of Cold War tensions and subterfuge are still intact (remember Andropov?), and still provide an easy parallel to the world of competitive chess. As one character says, "We move; they move." The recent case of the not-ready-for-prime-time Russian spies deported from this country even makes the whole thing seem somehow freshly relevant.
We're not talking Chekov or Arthur Miller here, but there's a serviceable dramatic vehicle here that allows for a hefty dose of what audiences are probably most interested in - the music. Lots of music. It's hard not to think of "Mamma Mia!," the giga-hit that grafted an abundance of ABBA tunes onto a lightweight plot. The "Chess" score isn't quite as catchy, alas, although "One Night in Bangkok" is especially rich in ABBA-ness.
Quite a few of the songs are really not much more than gussied-up recitatives with a good beat, where angular, not quite distinctive melodic lines push texts along. Not that such weaknesses matter all that much, especially given the vivid delivery of the likable cast in Signature's smoothly oiled staging, directed by Schaeffer with a flair for momentum and detail.
Jill Paice, as Florence, gives the show a solid grounding, with sensitive acting and a singing voice that, aside from some flatness and stridency when pushing hard in the upper register, has considerable appeal. Euan Morton shines as Anatoly, finding a good deal of nuance and depth in the character. And he's such an effective vocalist that he makes it almost possible to overlook just how horribly tacky and treacly, in words and music, the Act 1-closing "Anthem" really is.
Jeremy Kushnier brings the requisite swagger and rock-singer firepower to the role of Freddie. The supporting cast is strong, especially Christopher Bloch as Molokov, the would-be sympathetic member of the Russian team, and Russell Sunday as Freddie's slimy handler Walter. Eleasha Gamble gives an effectively understated performance as Anatoly's wife, Svetlana.
The tightly meshed, eight-member chorus, which seems to have taken some tips on fashion and movement from the old "Saturday Night Live" character Dieter, revs up the energy level with every appearance.
A compact ensemble of instrumentalists, led by Jenny Cartney, generates plenty of volume from its perch in a corner above the intimate stage, which boasts a sleek set by Daniel Conway, neatly lit by Chris Lee. Kathleen Geldard designed the costumes, Karma Camp the choreography.
All things considered, Signature Theatre's version of "Chess" makes a bold and persuasive move on behalf of a challenging show.
'Chess' runs through Oct. 3 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are $55 to $81. Call 703-820-9771 or go to signature-theatre.org.
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