Knocking the Songs Out of the Park: Chess

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Knocking the Songs Out of the Park: Chess

Posted on April 26, 2013

As the program notes to the revival of the 1988 version of musical Chess at Dundalk Community Theatre correctly reflect, the show is “rarely performed.” At the same time it has a well-deserved reputation as the repository of some gorgeous music. As John Amato, director of this incarnation of the show, comments, the book is the problem, i.e. the problem that explains why the show doesn’t get done often. Some of the book has reportedly been trimmed in this rendering. Perhaps because of these trims, the songs get a decent chance to shine through, and it helps tremendously the songs are delivered by a cast that is simply sensational. Nobody told these actor/singers that this was community theater, and apparently they never got the memo. With only two minor exceptions, this is simply professional-quality work.

Amy Agnese, as Florence, the “second” (i.e. trainer and nursemaid) of the boorish American chess master Freddie, yields not a thing vocally to Judy Kuhn, who originated the role. I KNOW HIM SO WELL, Agnese’s duet with Lisa Pastella-Young, as Svetlana, the estranged wife of Florence’s new love, the Russian chess master Anatoly, is stunning.

And I think I actually prefer the vocal delivery of Ken Ewing, as Freddie, to Philip Casnoff’s original, although Ewing in this role will not be to everyone’s taste. Freddie, obviously based on the late Bobby Fischer (not only in personality but in the unfolding of the tournament at the center of the action) is usually portrayed by young, handsome, intense-looking actors. Ewing is large and made to look ungainly by unflattering velour workout clothes, and not a bit the intellectual matinee idol. Yet he manages to inhabit the role a different way, making PITY THE CHILD, his self-revelation, an explanation of his nerdly and gay (“probably queer,” say the lyrics) persona. And if the voice is a little ragged, well, that fits the psyche.

Steve Antonsen (as Anatoly) is also expert at milking the emotion from a song, especially with ANTHEM, Anatoly’s tribute to Russia and, more broadly, to the persistent power of the loyalties he has tried to walk away from when he defected and the TERRACE DUET, in which Anatoly and Florence fall in love. Antonsen is also somewhat unconventional casting for the role, not young nor svelte, but since the character is supposed to have had a life and a marriage before he got to this point, it rang truer than what conventional casting yields.

So, back to the book, by Richard Nelson (“based on an idea by Tim Rice”). What’s wrong with it? There is every reason for it to amount to something. It’s what they call “high concept”: star-crossed lovers torn apart by Cold War politics set against a background of grandmaster-level chess competition. But the concept sort of lies there lifeless. If you’re going to show how Cold War realpolitik wrecked people’s lives, you have to do it realistically: that’s why The Spy Who Came In From The Cold worked so well. Here, we are supposed to believe that Freddy’s wheeler-dealer business agent Walter (Timoth David Copney) is also a CIA agent – and that the said Walter would first draw a gun to help Anatoly defect to the West and then a little later turn around, in close collaboration with his KGB counterpart, and pressure Anatoly to go back. That creaking sound you hear is the audience’s credibility straining and snapping. But once that happens, the book seems like an exercise in willed unhappy endings, and in fact there’s a song, YOU AND I, that tries to get past the point by making the point explicit:

…But we go on pretending
Stories like ours
Have happy endings.

Well, of course they don’t have a happy ending if the book author won’t write one, but the plot has to support it credibly. We have just witnessed two characters with the strength to create the precondition for a happy ending, Florence by defecting from the chess master who has been her professional obsession for seven years, and Anatoly by defecting both from an unhappy nation and an unhappy marriage. The CIA and KGB characters then engineer a situation in which Anatoly is persuaded to return to both like Sidney Carton opting for the guillotine in Tale of Two Cities. And Anatoly pretty much folds his hand and goes with it. It just doesn’t wash for a character who has just shown such courage.

I mentioned the gorgeous, operatic score, by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (better known as the “Bs” in the rock group ABBA), but it must also be acknowledged that Tim Rice’s lyrics leave a lot to be desired – for songs in a musical. Individual lines work, but they don’t form coherent arguments (okay in pop music but not on the stage), and they frequently don’t exactly align with the plot. For instance, one of Florence’s big numbers, NOBODY’S SIDE, the interior monologue Florence runs through as she is making up her mind to desert Freddie for Anatoly, seems to be in part about chafing at being a chess second (“There must be more I could achieve/ But I don’t have the nerve to leave”) and in part about declaring her independence of relationships to anyone, as the song’s title suggests. What it doesn’t seem to be about is forming any allegiances, quite the contrary. Yet that’s really what’s going on dramatically: she’s not rejecting allegiances at all, but simply forming a new one, giving her heart to Anatoly, who barely figures in the song. Little lyrical lapses like this, making for showstopper tunes but insulting the thrust of the dramatic action, are commonplace, and they add up.

In short, this is a first-rate production (not only in vocal performance and acting, but also in costuming and sets) of what is, overall, an incurably second-rate show. Director Amato is to be congratulated for having highlighted the one part that is top-notch, coaxing out of the cast song after song that knocks each one out of the park. It is well worth going to to hear those songs sail by. We can all go see Sondheim some other time.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for graphic element

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review