Mastering the various incarnations of Chess from 1984 concept album to 1988 Broadway musical isn't exactly a snap. Subsequent rethinkings by original lyricist Tim Rice, plus tinkerings by others, turn the full evolution into a labyrinth. Preparing for the Loaf's Spring Preview Issue, I asked Queen City Theatre Company artistic director Glenn Griffin to explain the differences between the Broadway version of Chess, which CPCC Summer Theatre presented here in 1991, and Chess — The London Version, now premiering at Spirit Square.
Three minutes into Griffin's disquisition on the two radically diverging scenarios, my head was spinning. So I made a beeline to Wikipedia. It boils down to this: Though the 1986 London version was still running two years later, director Trevor Nunn decided it would be necessary to turn Chess into a book musical for it to work in America. He called upon playwright Richard Nelson to fill in the gaps left by the concert-style London production, giving the story line more continuity. More importantly, Nelson changed the story line so that the fate of American chess champion Freddie Trumper would be more like Bobby Fischer's, our Commie-hating hero who won the "Match of the Century" against Boris Spassky in 1972.
Keeping the story of Chess in line with the ancient Fischer-Spassky battle seems far less necessary today than it did a quarter of a century ago, but with the recent lifting of restrictions against bringing the original London Version to America, we can finally take up the issue of whether Rice's more concert-like concept works. Fortified by my Wiki researches, I had to question my own ease with the plotline in the current Queen City presentation. So I've deferred judgment to my wife Sue. She followed the story just fine.
It is a thick Cold War tangle, that's for sure. Trumper's second, Hungarian-born Florence Vassy, is tired of being taken for granted, and it soon becomes apparent that the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky, is not only a more benign personality than Trumper but also more ardent in his feelings for her. So Florence switches sides in mid-match, becoming Anatoly's lover. Ah, but there's another layer of complications beyond this East-West love triangle. Anatoly has a wife back in the USSR, and Florence may still have a father who's en prise behind the Iron Curtain. Putting these pieces into play is Soviet official Alexander Molokov, deeply vested in the propaganda dividends of a Sergievsky victory and ruthless when his superstar defects to the West.
Oh yes, there are multiple chess games going on in Chess — at multiple levels.
Griffin not only upholds his new Director of the Year creds behind the scenes, he's a very fine Sergievsky anchoring the cast, less romantic than dignified. He even sings as well as his co-stars, Alyson Lowe and Jonathan Elliott Coarsey. Lowe has grown in confidence since last year's Grey Gardens, most affecting in her final "You and I" duet with Griffin. As the McEnroe of chessdom, Coarsey unleashes a preternaturally high and strong voice, seemingly capable of cutting through steel. Yet the score by ABBA stalwarts Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus has all the principals straining to reach its upper limits.
In a costume that revives his Beelzebub look from last fall's Reefer Madness, Kristian Wedolowski heads the solid supporting cast as The Arbiter. Matthew Corbett is KGB-formidable as Molokov, probably his best musical performance ever, and Allison Rhinehart as Molokov's U.S. counterpart never bats an eyelash all evening long responding to the name of Walter.
The best of Griffin's boldest moves is bringing us Terry Henry-Norman as Anatoly's wife, Svetlana: Her elegant hauteur is a 180-degree shift from the peasant frumpiness Lyn McNutt brought to the role so admirably 20 years ago. She also extends Griffin's all-embracing black-versus-white concept — including Wedolowski's chessboard set design and Robby Jaeger's chess-piece costume designs for the ensemble chorines — to the women who compete for Anatoly.