Review: Chess at Signature Theater

The Thinker by Rodin

It seems strange, but The Washington Post so far has not sent a critic out to review Signature Theater’s production of Chess. A casual Google search turned up no reviews at all, which leaves it to me, a humble blogger, to fill in the gap for theatergoers. My family and I had front row center seats at last night’s 8 PM performance.

Chess is the late 1980s musical created by two of the powerhouses behind ABBA (Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) with lyrics provided by Tim Rice. It’s one of my favorite musicals. Some months back, I reviewed a concert version of Chess performed in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The concert version hewed fairly closely to the original version that ran on London’s West End for three years.

Chess is not like Oklahoma, where you know the words, songs and scenes will not vary in the slightest. Directors seem to feel free to reinvent Chess with each staging; the result is you are never quite sure what you will get. This is definitely true with Signature Theater’s version, which is quite a variant. Director Eric Schaeffer, Choreographer Karma Camp and Orchestrator David Holcenberg felt free to create their own variant of Chess. The result is a leaner version of Chess missing a few of the beloved songs. Those of you hoping for something resembling the London version with the glorious song “Merano” (or for that matter “The Story of Chess”) may be disappointed. The upside is that the creative forces behind this staging make a much more plausible and dramatic version of Chess.

For example, Florence was always a hard to understand character. She is supposed to be Freddie Trumper’s chess second, but in the real world, a top-notch female chess player is highly unusual. In this staging, Jill Paice establishes Florence very early on as an earnest chess player in her own right, capable of tripping up Freddie with her penetrating insight into the game. Florence is still caught up in a love triangle between Freddie and Anatoly but the tensions in their relationships are more plausibly established than they are in the concert version, or in the one other staging I saw some two decades ago at a local community theater. The plot, which seemed to have holes in the past, is now fully connected and plausible, with the level of drama consequently ratcheted up considerably.

Lyrics have also been rearranged, sometimes dramatically, sometimes surprisingly. For example, Florence sings “Someone Else’s Story” in this version near the end of the first act. Traditionally, Svetlana, Anatoly’s estranged wife sings it.

Florence has always been understood to be someone whose childhood was torn apart by the Cold War when the U.S.S.R. invaded Hungary in 1956. What is probably new in the Signature Theater version is a Prologue that graphically shows the separation with her father as a child and introduces what I believe is a new song “Lullaby (Apukad eros Kezen)”.

In the concert version, we have the first match occurring in Merano, Italy. Freddie loses the first tournament and Anatoly defects to the West with Florence immediately upon his win. The second act takes place in Bangkok, where Freddie reemerges as a color commentator for Anatoly’s match against a fellow Russian, while desperately trying to win back Florence. In Signature Theater’s version, we have Freddie and Anatoly first meeting to play in Bangkok, with Anatoly defecting with Florence before the tournament is even decided. The remaining games are played eight months later in Budapest, which of course heightens the dramatic tension given Florence’s wrenching experiences there as a child. In the original version, Freddie spends much of his time trying to woo back Florence in the second act. In this version, Freddie comes to believe Florence is just a “bitch” and he is better off without her. In short, Signature Theater’s version arguably works better as a drama.

Signature Theater has always been an intimate theater, so expect a couple hundred seats and a small stage where all the action happens. As I noticed when I saw Les Miserables there, the orchestra, oddly elevated to a spot above the stage, sounds somewhat muffled. Signature needs to find a way to make sure the orchestra can be heard more clearly. It could be something about being in the front row, but the mixture of hearing live singing with the electronic amplification coming through the speakers is sometimes a little off as well. The theater is small enough where I don’t think voice amplification is even needed.

The actors recruited to play the three principle characters Florence, Anatoly and Freddie are all terrific. Florence is really the central character and Jill Paice will not disappoint, neither as an actor nor as a terrific singer. Paice has a wider resume than most of the ensemble, having played many parts on Broadway and elsewhere. I personally thought Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie had the edge as the better actor vs. Euan Morton’s portrayal of Anatoly. Anatoly’s signature song is “Anthem”, which arguably could use a more powerful voice than Morton provides. The ancillary roles are all competently filled: Chris Sizemore as the Arbiter (he played Enjoras in Signature’s Les Miserables) and Christopher Block as Molokov (who played the less subtle character of Thenardier in Signature’s Les Miserables). This production introduces a new character to Chess, at least that I am aware of: Walter (Russell Sunday) as Freddie’s agent and apparently something of a State Department operative. Svetlana (Eleasha Gamble) has a smaller part in this staging and sings less but has a wonderful voice when she is finally allowed to sing. The ensemble is small like the theater, but arguably could have been used better. In one odd scene, they dance behind Plexiglas. It made no sense to me.

Should you see this version? The short answer is yes! Signature Theater seems incapable of putting out crap and is establishing a high bar in the Washington theater scene, which is already beginning to rival New York’s tonier scene. Signature’s version will be a bit jarring for Chess traditionalists, but Signature has arguably improved the product by making this musical far more plausible and coherent.

There are two scenes where the actors smoke, so if you are sensitive to tobacco get seats away from the front row. (I think the scenes could have been done without cigarettes altogether. I mean they are already wearing stage microphones which are visually intrusive; why use real cigarettes?) Also a personal note to Jill Paice: fabulous boots!

12 thoughts on “Review: Chess at Signature Theater

  1. The details you describe make me think they are using the Broadway version of the show, written by the great Richard Nelson. The Hungarian “Lullaby” is one of the most beautiful tracks on the American recording, which also introduced “Someone Else’s Story” as Florence’s song. This version also introduced Walter as a character (though he has appeared in other versions, and focused on one match that started in Bangkok (Act One) and moved to Florence’s hometown of Budapest for Act Two.

    It would take a Biblical scholar (or a Star Trek archivist) to sort out all the different versions of Chess, but that’s my best guess. Thanks for posting the review – much appreciated.

  2. Tnx’s a lot for this post. I am thrilling to discover that after all these years Chess is still alive.
    Based on your review it seems that the have focused on the Broadway version with perhaps some London elements.
    I am very sorry that I am not able to see this production. If I had knew it in january I would have made the trip from Holland, now unfortunaly I don’t have the time.

  3. How come The Washington Post didn’t review? I was there first night of previews; and so were other Chess enthusiasts and newbies. The many variations of this musical; book, lyrics and staging – make it fascinating… all versions seem flawed yet the score is amazing. And the Signature performances are a treat – especially so close to home. I was thrilled to see it on stage.
    It should get more press.. thanks for your review.

  4. I’ve actually never seen a production of Chess, but I have my tickets to see it this Friday. I only have the soundtrack to Chess which I’ve listened to a million times by now, and from your comments, it seems like the CD will match the Signature production. On the CD, Florence sings Someone Else’s Story, but the placement of the song Apukad is later (in the 2nd half, I think?).

    Thanks for the review! I can’t wait to see it myself.

  5. I just came from seeing Chess at Signature. I thought it was terrific…well cast, interesting stage settings and lighting, fine powerful voices. I was unfamiliar with the show, so it was a wonderful surprise. I have been a subscriber for many years and found this to be one of Signature’s best shows. Congratulations to the entire cast and crew. I am eager to read the Post’s review when it comes out.

  6. Thank you so much for this thoughtful, thorough review, especially since the Post has been so derelict in writing one! I have never seen the Broadway version, only listened to it, but I found the story somewhat confusing. I watched the recent concert version on TV, which seemed overly long and drawn out. This was indeed better than either of those – more dramatic, clearer story and characters and frankly, better sung all the way around.

  7. Don’t blame the Post for not reviewing the show. Signature has asked formal reviewers to not publish reviews until after the Press performance, which will be this weekend, the 28th and 29th.

  8. My family and I have been fans of Chess since the original London recording and was so excited to see a stage production of Chess come to the area (the last one we saw was the 90’s at Montgomery College). It’s clear the reviewer enjoyed the production but I have to disagree on one point: Morton’s portrayal of Anatoly was fantastic! His version of Anthem was tremendous! Of the 3 leads I felt he was the best. We were slightly dissapointed in Nobody’s Side, however I know Him so Well was fantastic – great collaboration b/w the 2 women.

  9. Signature Theatre has scheduled an extra 2 weeks of preview performances for Chess. That means the show saw 1 week of previews, then a “Funders Opening” on 8/17 for those involved with the creation of the show, then 2 more weeks of previews to make minor tweaks and allow the show to “settle”, and then an official “Press Opening” on 8/29 after which press theatre critics will be invited to review the production.
    There is a very interesting article about the change here: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/theater/2010/08/23/signature-theatre-adds-preview-nights-but-at-what-price/

  10. I was in a local production of CHESS (Community Theatre) back in 1993. We did the American version, which was the only version available in the US to produce back then. (on an interesting side note, I played Nikolai and was in the Ensemble, and my dance partner for One Night in Bangkok was the wonderful, now famous Christina Hendricks, from AMC’s Mad Men! )

    I saw Signature’s CHESS last night, front row seats. I think they have done the best they can to solve some of the book problems and the 3 leads were, in my view, spectacular! Jill Paice as Florence is the definite standout and this “new” version certainly tilts the scales in that characters direction–sometimes to the detriment of the Freddie character, which was more prominent in the version we did back in 93.

    The set and lights are stupendous, and the sound, while yes, overly amplified and stylized, is appropriate for the rock score.

    Even with the changes, there is still something missing from CHESS. The cold war is old news and the show just doesn’t seem to work as a period piece.

    It still is one of those shows that is better as a cast album, with the wonderful Andersson and Ulvaeus music, than it is as a staged show.

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