Glenn T. Griffin has done it all before. He has repeatedly spotlighted strong, strange women in musicals produced by Queen City Theatre Company — directing Grey Gardens, Side Show and Evita. Stretching back to his days as artistic director at Off-Tryon Theatre Company, Griffin has indulged in a personal chessboard obsession in his 2001 staging of Dangerous Liaisons. Queen City's Dangerous checked in with a homoerotic retelling of that same decadent tale in 2009.
It all finally comes together, the strong weird musical women and the career-long chessboard fixation, when Griffin directs — and stars in — Chess at Duke Energy Theatre, May 19-June 11. Griffin will portray Soviet chess champion Anatoly Sergievsky, and two queens will fight over him.
Terry Henry-Norman will portray Svetlana, Sergievsky's wife, and Alyson Lowe will be Florence Vassy, Anatoly's paramour. Florence and Anatoly conspire on a nifty castling move at the end of Act 1 after the world championship match in Italy: Sergievsky defects to the West while Florence, who has served as American champion Freddie Trumper's chess second, defects from the Trumper camp to live with Anatoly in London. There's plenty of Cold War über chess in Act 2 as the CIA and KGB join Svetlana and Florence in using Anatoly as their pawn.
The action in Bangkok gets pretty complex.
"Freddie begs Florence to take him back, and she says, 'I'm not in love with you. We are all playing games here.' And in fact, they are," Griffin observes. "They're all playing these political games."
Griffin saw Henry-Norman for the first time last year in Black Pearl Sings. She fits the ways that he is planning to re-imagine Svetlana.
"When I saw her as Black Pearl," Griffin remembers, "that's exactly who I wanted. She has this beautiful poise. Svetlana has often been played as this dowdy Soviet wife. And what I wanted to show is that that's not really the reason he leaves her. She really is this beautiful woman, just as Florence is a beautiful woman."
Even that is going to be about chess in Griffin's concept.
"Symbolically, you have black and white. Alyson, blonde hair, and then you have Terry. But both of them are powerful women."
If that sounds a wee bit subtle, don't worry. Griffin plans to have an all-female octet of backup singers, all decked out as chess pieces à la Lady Gaga, four black and four white.
"They're trying really hard to get a light-up chessboard for the floor," Griffin adds.
The last time Chess played here, in 1991, the CPCC Summer Theatre production won numerous CL Theater Award honors. Griffin is sidestepping comparisons.The Chess we saw was a salvage of the Broadway version that had flopped, running less than two months in 1988. At that time, it was the only version of the book allowed to play in the U.S. The Queen City has obtained permission from Samuel French London to do a new version that's far closer to the original 1986 version by Tim Rice and ABBA stalwarts Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the one that played nearly three years in London's West End.
"In the front of the script now," Griffin confides, "Tim Rice writes about how there's been all of these productions, how people have taken the London version and put it together with the Broadway version. There was an Australian version! Now they've finally created their version. This is what they originally wanted, and this is how they see it being presented."
Numerous recordings, including the original concept album of 1984, will tell you how good the music is. It is likely the root of Griffin's chessboard obsession.
"This makes me feel old, but I have the records," he admits. "I have the two records, and I just remember loving this music even before I knew what it was really about."