Chess

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Mischa Stephens, Leah Shesky, Alan Coyne, Chris Uzelac around table. Martin Bell, Stuart Bousel midground. Orchestra, Juliana Lustenader, ensemble in rear. Photo by Jay Yamada.

A game of life

Debuting in 1986 on the West End, “Chess” became a classic with a highly successful three year run. While still playing in London, it opened on Broadway in 1988, and the musical embarked on a mysterious course. The book was revised, ostensibly to deal with some perceived anti-Americanism in the original. Other curious changes were made such as reducing two chess matches to one with a different winner and reversing the sequence of the venues so that Bangkok would be first rather than second and Budapest would replace Merano, Italy. Something was lost in translation, as the Broadway version bombed with critics and audiences and ran only two months.

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Mischa Stephens, Leah Shesky. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Custom Made Theatre is now performing a version of “Chess” that is wisely based on the London original. Through the generosity of lyricist Tim Rice, CMT’s Artistic Director Brian Katz, was allowed to make major cuts and revisions to the book. The result is a tight, fast-moving and literate entertainment. The production is not without weaknesses, but audiences have the opportunity to enjoy a significant musical that is underappreciated in this country.

The central narrative is based on the Cold-War-era 1972 World Chess Championship between American enfant terrible Bobby Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky.  Partly based on fact and partly pure fiction, the vignettes that comprise the storyline are significant for the symbolism they represent rather than any attempt to represent the truth.

It is hard to imagine a game more cerebral, involving less social skill and interaction than chess. Perhaps that condition is a deterrent to the musical’s reception in the United States. But little of the action involves matches per se. Chess acts as a grand metaphor, both in the players’ clashes over the same lover as well as in the political maneuvers in the chess hall and in the broader diplomatic environment. Does the term “pawn in their game” ring a meaningful note? So tension and conflict occur in several dimensions well beyond the chess board.

The musical is in the form of an opera buffa, in which virtually the whole of the dialog is sung except a little connective tissue that is spoken. Rice’s lyrics are set to the music of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the creative team and performers in the former pop group ABBA. Perhaps detractors of ABBA’s music (this reviewer not included) expected music unappealing to them in the ABBA vein. This is not the case. The quality of the music is as strong as it is varied. Akin to opera, some multi-voice numbers such as “Interview” have separate vocal lines and melodies running concurrently. “Embassy Lament” uses clipped patter, while “You and I” and “Heaven Help My Heart” stand out as moving ballads. And finally, the humorous and risque “One Night in Bangkok” is a great crowd pleaser. And if any could be arranged in the ABBA studio style, so much the better.

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Chris Uzelac and Heather Orth. Photo by Jay Yamada.

A compromise that must be accepted to appreciate this show is that it was written for the largest theater stages and is playing on one of the smallest. Action and choreography are compressed to fit, and props are spare. The stage is appropriately festooned in black and white squares, and platforms create a little more sense of space, but the four piece orchestra takes some away.

The acting is sound throughout, and Mischa Stephens was particularly apt as the unsympathetic Freddy (i.e., Bobby Fischer). But because of the dominance of singing in the play, voice takes on more importance than in musicals with occasional songs. Chris Uzelac as Anatoly (think, Boris Spassky) displays a sensational lyric baritone in his role. His power and rich tone fills the house. In a smaller role, Heather Orth is Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana, and her voice commands as well. Most other principals are competent, and the ensemble is quite strong. However, weaknesses are revealed, particularly in some songs which are very high in singers’ ranges. The idea of pushing a singer’s voice into a higher key is to convey a sense of urgency, but sometimes vocal stress results.

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Mischa Stephens and ensemble. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Some have criticized “Chess” for its many short scenes which sap continuity and fail to induce empathy with characters. These conditions are actually suited to this plot and these characters, none of whom are warm and cuddly. However, an appropriate criticism is that Freddy’s forfeit of a world championship match is not well explicated. Despite the weaknesses, the work is worthy and provocative, and the production works well within its limitations.

“Chess,” with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays at 555 Sutter St., San Francisco through October 15, 2016.

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