7/24/2021 CHESS Jennie T. Anderson Theatre Concert Series
BORDERS AND HEARTS
Chess all started with a concept album in 1983. Lyricist Tim Rice and the creative force behind ABBA (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) put together a series of songs that sorta kinda told a fictionalized version of the Fisher-Spassky World Chess Championship. Layered with Cold War politics, the players are “handled” and manipulated by their respective countries, hoping to win a major propaganda victory. Toss into the mix a beautiful woman who loves both players, a defection, and a ravenous media corps, and you have the potential for a dynamic and compelling piece.
A few of the numbers have taken on lives of their own – “Anthem,” “One Night in Bangkok, “”I Know Him So Well,” and “Pity the Child” have been “covered” often, and, usually, well. But Chess didn’t become a “show” until 1989, with some very dramatic plot changes (instead of two tournaments a year apart, we’re given a single contest). Songs were added and dropped, and, the show was not a huge hit, though it does have a devoted following. I saw a touring company in early 1990 starring Broadway diva-to-be Carolee Carmello, but my memory of that production is dim and unreliable. I do remember not liking it too much, but not hating it, either.
And, Rice is continuously tinkering with it, so the version you see today may be decidedly different than the version you saw last year.
To begin, it must be asked, have world events passed this piece by?
In 2009, writing about a PBS Great Performances Concert Version, I said, “Yes!” I thought Cold War political brinkmanship may work as a period piece curiosity, but 2009 audiences would be hard-pressed to sit through a three-hour allegory on the Cold War. Of course, that was before Putin started flexing his Hacker Camps and Russia resumed its status as the “Big Bad.” It now seems, despite its period setting, as timely as ever.
I also found previous productions colder than a Russian winter, and was never moved by it, by its characters, or by its finale. I always thought it was a triumph of musical craftsmanship over compelling storytelling. After all, chess as a metaphor for politics and love has to be a thematic trope as old as chess itself.
But now, Jono Davis, Artistic Director of Cobb County’s Jennie T. Anderson Theatre and its exquisite concert series, has produced a concert version that makes all the right choices – filled the stage with talented musicians and actors, put a very talented first-time director (Lilliangina Quiñones) at the helm, and let her focus our attention on the characters and relationships, delivering an emotional gut bunch that will forever change my appreciation of this piece.
At the start, we are thrust into an intimate scene between a father and daughter, as he tries to forge in her an appreciation of the finer points of chess as it applies to life. It is Budapest on the eve of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Father and Daughter are soon separated in the chaos, and the show storms ahead to the 1980’s and the World Chess Championship in Bangkok Thailand. The players are American Freddie Trumper and Soviet Anatoly Sergievsky. They are accompanied by their “seconds,” Florence Vassy and Molokov, a charming but sinister figure who (more than likely) is KGB. The match is overseen by The Arbiter, a strict arbiter of rules and behaviors whose word is law, so far as the game is concerned.
As the tournament continues, Freddy shows himself to be arrogant and quick to anger, leaving the game at a perceived slight over some suspicious yogurt. Florence arranges a rapprochement, and in the process, falls in love with Anatoly, which leads to a defection, and to a possible reunion with her father (yes, Florence was the young girl of the opening and, since the invasion, has grown up so American she no longer understands the Hungarian language.) We soon get to meet Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana, who, despite Anatoly’s claims to the contrary, still has a hold on him.
It all builds to a second round of games in Budapest, where the stakes couldn’t be higher. The player’s countries, more than the players themselves, are soon engaged in a series of schemes and moves and feints and betrayals.
Like diplomacy (and chess), the plot is a series of moves and counter-moves, lies that may be hidden truths, and evidence that hides possible lies. Ms. Quiñones keeps the twists and turns of plot clear, if not the veracity of the claims and deals.
This is a dream cast, and it was obvious that the leads have been working on this show longer than the usual seven days given to these concerts as prep time. (*) They know these characters and songs intimately, and never need to refer to script or score. More to the point, they find the emotional core of their choices, and create credible forces and trends in an ever- shifting emotional web.
Kylie Brown (GET’s Ghost and Aurora’s Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown) is near perfect as Florence. She has a voice that soars and a presence that fills the room. Juan Carlos Unzueta follows on the heels of his Guido in Nine with a layered performance, giving us a Freddie who is immature and irritating, but capable of moving us (“Pity the Child”). Maxim Gukhman ( ALT’s Rent and Thoroughly Modern Millie) brings to Anatoly a gravitas and musicality and vulnerability that puts us on his “side,” regardless of how deep our loyalty to America may be.
In other roles, Stuart Schleuse is a perniciously amiable Molokov, Skyler Brown brings to Walter (Freddie’s publicist) a grasping greed that totally makes the revelations about his character credible, Mary Nye Bennett is a sweetly sad Svetlana, and Diany Rodriguez is beautifully profane and strong as the Arbiter. The cast is filled to the brim with an extraordinary ensemble (14 strong) with Tecia Chavez and Sammy Fossum extraordinary as dancers whose pas-de-deux provide elegant transitions and “covers” for the actual chess matches.
This is a strong cast and musical director Chris Brent Davis is to be commended for making this difficult score sound note-perfect, and for keeping the 12-piece orchestra balanced and melodious.
At the production level, the show sparkles with an intricacy and design that belies its short prep time and concert trappings. Projections (concepts by Ms. Quiñones, images curated by Jono Davis, design and execution by Bobby Johnston) and lights (by Michael Carver) dazzle and keep time and place clear, and the costumes (coordinated by Ms. Bennett) cleverly put the Americans in white and the Soviets in black but keep Ms. Brown in a dazzlingly clinging red dress that guarantees she’ll be the focus of every scene she’s in, which, of course, is (almost) every scene.
There are so many outstanding musical moments to cite – Florence’s “Someone Else’s Story,” Anatoly’s “Where I Want to be,” the aforementioned “Pity the Child” from Freddie, the Florence/Svetlana duet “I Know Him So Well,” the garish “One Night in Bangkok,” and of course, Anatoly’s “Anthem,” which Florence semi-reprises beautifully for the heart-breaking finale.
Yes, it would be easy to dismiss Chess with its easy metaphors and cold war mentality, which I have done for the past thirty years or so. But, when all is said and done, THIS time, I truly responded to the characters, to their music, and to their stories. More than anything else, Florence sums up the virtues of this production when she sings, “my land’s only borders lie around my heart.” It is a sweet and idealistic image, but a closer look shows those borders to be not so identifiable. Especially when a choice must be made between long-lost father and new-found lover.
It’s a choice that broke my heart and (finally) sold me on this show
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #Chess #JTAndersonTheatre)
(*) Mr. Davis tells us in his curtain speech that this show has been scheduled for three years, and I suspect, the leads have used that interim time wisely.