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The Play-Goer: Chess, The Musical

Making all the right moves

photo by Nathan Bowen/ The play focuses on the personal and international politics surrounding the Cold War era chess tournament between American Freddy Trumper (Dean Davis) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Lee Nicol). Both are being used by their governments, of course, but both are also doing their fair share of using: Trumper to maximize profit, and Sergievsky to defect

         With music by former ABBA band-mates Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita fame, Chess made a hit with its 1984 concept album. Not only was the music exciting and unique, the story of two chess grandmasters playing for their countries was perfectly timed as an allegory to the then-current Cold War tensions between Russia and the U.S. Then came the actual stage productions, first in London’s West End, which ran three years, followed by a much-altered version on Broadway, which closed after two months. Critics panned everything from the screaming characters to the convoluted story to the three-plus hour length.

         Fortunately for you, 2nd Star Productions in Bowie is playing a much more streamlined (barely over two hours) and accessible version. Director Mickey Lund has reworked (with permission) the story, taken the best from those older versions and focused on that epic score to create a rock opera with all the right moves.

         The cast of 15 features some tremendous voices singing soaring solos as well as beautiful choral pieces, all well prepared by co-music directors Doug Dawson and Jessica Deskin. This is the rare musical in which the audience can understand just about every word of the ensemble’s singing, so concise is their delivery.

         Dawson also does a fine job as conductor, ensuring that the appropriate balance in volume between the orchestra and the singers allows us to understand the lyrics, a critical balance when almost all the lines are sung.   

         But be warned: This isn’t a Rodgers and Hammerstein show whose story and lyrics wash over you; this one requires that attention be paid. You’ll be rewarded with a clear understanding not only of the intricate plot, but also of its humor and gravity.

         The play focuses on the personal and international politics surrounding the Cold War-era chess tournament between American Freddy Trumper (Dean Davis) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Lee Nicol). Both are being used by their governments, of course, but both are also doing their fair share of using: Trumper to maximize his profit, and Sergievsky to defect. Pushing the buttons are Trumper’s assistant and lover, Hungarian-born Florence Vassy (Elizabeth Hester), and Sergievsky’s assistant, Alexander Molokov (Gene Valendo).

         These four carry much of the vocal weight of the production, with Hester’s soprano and Davis’ and Nicol’s tenors countered nicely by Valendo’s rich baritone. Davis’ performance of a major hit from the 1984 album, One Night in Bangkok, is a lively rocker, but he also delivers some pathos in Pity the Child, as he describes his parents’ break-up and the neglect he faced as a result.

         Nicol, likewise, gives us a beautiful Where I Want to Be, as Anatoly sings about how his success has not eased his inner conflicts.

         In Nobody’s Side, Hester beautifully yet forcefully depicts the conflict about her fading feelings for Trumper, in the context of the loss of her father in the Hungarian revolution. She also teams up for I Know Him So Well, another hit from the album that features Florence and Svetlana (Ashley Zielinski), Anatoly’s wife left back in the USSR. It’s a beautiful and touching duet.

         Valendo’s baritone is perfectly matched to The Soviet Machine, in which Molokov boasts about, well, the Soviet machine. Jason Vellon nicely combines comedy and gravitas as the television host covering the tournament, and later as Freddy’s boss. John Rose as The Arbiter is the strict keeper of the rules, regardless of what personal and political games may be going on outside the tournament.

         The ensemble especially shines in the a capella Hymn to Chess, but also moves well thanks to Karen Lacy’s fine choreography. They even act as chess pieces. When the two champions play the game on a high platform, the ensemble becomes the queens, kings, bishops, knights and pawns, making each move along a huge chessboard that covers the stage.

         Speaking of the chessboard, this is a production as striking visually as it is musically. Set designers Valendo and Lund have created a chessboard that covers the stage, raked a few degrees from front to back so that all the audience can see it. Thinly outlined in red, it sits in front of that platform where the games take place, which itself is flanked by two vertical set pieces depicting each country’s flag.

         Costumes by Fran Marchand and Lura Myers maintain the black, white and red color scheme, giving the production a nice, clean look that sets itself apart from the messy personal and political machinations of the story.

         The pieces all come together to make 2nd Star Productions’ Chess a visual, musical and artistic winner.

 

About 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission, Playing thru Feb. 16: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, plus Feb. 16 3pm, Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.