Chess is a musical with nearly legendary status given its famous parentage (Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba for music and Tim Rice for lyrics) and child (“One Night in Bangkok”). How was it this seemingly blessed show could produce a top forty hit but be a Broadway flop? It was a bit of a mystery. Some people said it was because the topic, of cold war battles fought through the medium of US/Soviet chess games, which just didn’t hold up after the Soviet Union fell; but with some thirty years distance between the original production and now, it seemed like an ideal time to explore the ugly reality: was it just a bad show with uninteresting music? Or was it a work of genius sadly unappreciated in its time? I’d enjoyed the little taster provided at a Blink and You Missed It production: some song with a 4/3 time (I think), driving, unique and strong, the kind of compositional voice I’d rarely heard in the context of musical theater. And, er, well, um, I actually really like Abba. So, er, it was really just a right show/wrong time kind of thing … right?
Well, this is the facts: the Union has gone all out to make Chess the rock and roll musical co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris must have imagined was at its core. The stage has been reconfigured as a thrust, with three or four rows of seats smashed between the brick walls of the theater and the rather overwhelming action on stage. There is COORDINATED MOVEMENT and SIDEWAYS LIGHTING and LOUD MUSIC and the whole thing made me feel like I’d been stuffed into a Donmar flavored custard cream cookie, which was REALLY COOL when I was being glamorized by the really intense everything but at other times just led to some serious show enjoyment problems which I’ll go into more detail in a bit.
The story is freaky, opening with the Hungarian spring being crushed by the Soviets, which somehow makes the underlying human cost of the cold war very tangible. It’s not just different ways of organizing economics, it’s not just a possible nuclear war, it’s people being shot in the streets and back alleys for dissident thoughts and families being used as pawns to manipulate their members. Wait, did I use a chess metaphor? Yes I did, and of course the whole show, of a Hungarian born American woman (Florence, Sarah Galbraith), a slightly nutso anti-Soviet American chess champion (Freddie, Tim Oxbrow), and his Russian rival (Anatoly, Nadim Naaman) is nothing but a game played by … well, not just the US and the USSR, but by the corporate interests sponsoring the chess matches, by Freddie against both Anatoly and Florence, and by Svetlana (the Russian agent, Natasha J Barnes) against pretty much everyone as long as she is able to show a success to her bosses. The whole thing starts to get a little Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy … but then for some reason in the middle of all this is a big dance number, One Night in Bangkok, which frankly just makes it all too surreal for words.
Unfortunately, because of the problems of the VERY LOUD BAND stage right (the side AWAY from the entrance to the theater) and the fact people were frequently singing with their backs to at least 1/3 of the stage, I found it very difficult to follow the lyrics and the occasional bits of spoken dialogue. I’m not sure if this was just an opening night problem, but it was just maddening, especially given that one of the awesome things about the Union is that they don’t have to mike people and you get to hear their unadulterated voices when they sing. Except, this time, I couldn’t, and neither could the guy sitting next to me, and neither could the guy sitting behind me and right in front of the band. It just sucks, because really this show felt so alive and cool and much better than I’d ever imagined a show about chess could be, and Florence was wonderfully heartbroken and determined (and man could she sing) and Freddie was fun and out of control the Arbiter (Craig Rhys Barlow) was all rock and roll. All in all, it was a vibrant production, but I feel like, given the sound quality, I really am not in a place to say for sure whether or not Chess is a good musical.
(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, February 15th, 2013. It continues through March 16th, although I think at this point tickets will only be available by calling the Union Theater’s box office and praying for returns.)