Chess the musical, like chess the game, seems to have an infinite set of moves to play. While it's no surprise that the score (by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice) remains the star of the show, the stunner is that this latest gambit was charged with crafting a decent book to match, this time by Danny Strong. Looks like there is a solid show there, one with considerable (and timely) bite. It's still not there, but it's the closest I've seen yet.
Don't get me wrong. The show remains problematic on all fronts, including the score. Songs have been added, cut, revised and/or rearranged. I won't quibble with the numerous lyric changes over the most recent versions, with one exception. "Someone Else's Story," if the team insists that it stay with Svetlana, then it must feature lyric changes - as it stands what she sings makes no sense, no matter how wonderfully delivered. And if they must continue to rearrange the order of the songs, they really need to be mindful of where we are in the story. Case in point, "Heaven Help My Heart," a number for Florence, happens way too early in the story, and as currently played, she's not ready at that early point to declare life-changing love. She's too strong to drop everything and fall head over heels. I'm fully on board with all the tinkering they want to do as long as it serves the story and characters. But let's face it, "Someone Else's Story" best fits Florence as she confronts her professional and romantic entanglements upon meeting Anatoly, just as "Heaven Help My Heart" would be better suited to a torn and hurting Svetlana.
|Ramin Karimloo and the Chess Company|
|It's the KGB (Bradley Dean) vs the CIA (Sean Allan Krill)|
And there is the generally poor (I'm being kind here) sound design by Kai Harada which is a muddled affair, with the orchestra overpowering the soloists many times, and rendering the ensemble largely incomprehensible throughout. I wondered how anyone who wasn't already familiar with the lyrics, or wasn't close enough to read lips, would be able to follow the story. To be fair, this is not a problem for just this production. It is a consistent issue at the Kennedy Center.
|Karimloo and Ruthie Ann Miles|
How wonderful for us that this amazing score was delivered by a first-rate principal cast. With this more prominent emphasis on the covert "diplomacy" between the KGB and the CIA, both Bradley Dean and Sean Allan Krill shone, managing to bring comedy and a dark sense of foreboding every time they took center stage. Bryce Pinkham was a true standout as the narrator/Arbiter, with razor-sharp timing and a piercing stare. One of the biggest hands of the afternoon went to his "Arbiter's Song." Everything about his performance was excellent.
|Face Off: Anatoly (Ramin Karimloo) vs Freddy (Raul Esparza)|
The main love triangle was pretty close to perfection, even with one of the three seriously ill and powering through. Ramin Karimloo was truly fantastic, oozing angst and inner conflict. His soulful eyes and powerful voice (!) were utterly charming, with both "Where I Want to Be" and "Anthem" definite highlights of the afternoon. Karen Olivo offered a fiery, strong-willed Florence that was an effective counterpoint to the gentle bear of Karimloo's Anatoly. She has a powerful voice, and when the two of them sang together, it was a little piece of musical theater Heaven right here on Earth.
|Rock Star! Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo|
So, Chess remains problematic, but this version is definitely a step in the right direction. As the lyric goes, "each game of chess means there's one less variation left to be played." We are now a few moves closer to checkmate.
(Photos by T. Wood)