Monday, July 22, 2019

Nicely conceived "Chess" production enhances a weak script at Near West

Most musicals follow the tried and true pattern of being written in a format that it is expected to be examined and redone through a series of readings, rewrites, staged readings, rewrites, previews, more rewrites, and, if lucky, a full-staged production.  As the process continues the script and score are improved to attempt to ensure that they are well-integrated.

Unfortunately, from the developmental perspective, “Chess” was first a concept album, then there was an attempt to develop a stage musical.  This is not totally unusual.  Other shows, such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” followed this format and did fairly well, but most shows, whose names you don’t know because they never “made it,” haven’t fared so well.

Why would a writing and producing team choose to break the mold, when the odds are against the venture being successful?  Usually it is because they don't have the capital to go through the usual process, so they figure that selling the album will raise the money to mount a production.

In the case of “Chess” the concept album was released in the autumn of 1984.  The recording was such a hit that, even when the show itself received such reviews as being described as "a suite of temper tantrums, [where] the characters ... yell at one another to rock music," and that "Chess” assaults the audience with a relentless barrage of scenes and numbers that are muscle-bound with self-importance," the West End production ran three years.  The same fate did not greet the much-altered US-version premiered on Broadway in 1988, which barely survived for two months.

The script tends to be contrived. The music may work well as a concert piece, but is not totally appropriate for a musical.  And the production was rudderless as illustrated by the fact that the first preview on the West End “ran 4 hours with a 90-minute intermission.” 

Opinions vary as to why the show was never a real hit.  The easiest description was that the book for the story line was never well-developed and the music /lyrics never fit smoothly into the story.  As such, in trying to make the show better, many different versions of the show have been put on over the years, featuring modified plots, different selections of music, and various casts of characters.

Though the musical plays out as a chess match, inspired by some of the political machinations surrounding the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship competition, the script basically tells of a love triangle between two chess playing grandmasters and a woman who serves as a manager to one of the players but falls in love.  

Oh, if it were only that simple.  All sorts of other disparaging themes emerge including the Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union, the personal eccentricity of the reclusive American chess aficionado, the Cold War political posturing between the US and Russia, the rocky marriage of the Russian chess player, and am attempt at political asylum, just to name a few of the side trips.

Despite the fact that the musical itself could never seem to settle on a single format that worked, the music from “Chess” composed by Benny Andersson and Bj√∂rn of the pop group ABBA, (the same ABBA whose tunes are used in the juke box musical “Mamma Mia”) with lyrics by Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, has remained popular. 

“Tim Rice admitted that after the comparative failure of “Chess,” his all-time favorite, he became disillusioned with theatre." He commented, "It may sound arrogant, but “Chess” is as good as anything I've ever done. And maybe it costs too much brainpower for the average person to follow it."

Or, maybe if time had been spent developing a solid story and book before shoe-horning in pre-written songs that often have nothing to do with the plot, the result would have been different.

The question may well be raised as to why Near West Theatre chose to do “Chess.”  Maybe, part of the answer lies in the theatre’s mission.

“Near West Theatre builds loving relationships and engages diverse people in strengthening their sense of identity passion, and purpose, individually and in community through accessible, affordable and transformational theatre arts experiences.  Near West is an open and affirming organization.”

Though many of their shows are of high production quality, the organization’s social service mission, making sure that those who participate, on and off stage, are in a safe zone, are respected no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, body shape, sexual orientation or age, holds paramount. 

To carry out their inclusive nature shows tend to have large casts, putting Equity actors on stage is not a priority and human process is as important as theatrical product.   In addition, shows are often chosen to aid the mostly tween and teenagers to learn history and sociological lessons.  “Chess” does exactly that.

Near West’s production, under the direction of Kelcie Nicole Dugger, has some excellent, textured performances, e.g., Grant Bell (Anatoly Sergievsky) and Sarah Farris (Florence Vassy) both develop very believable personas and have excellent voices.  Unfortunately, others tend to posture and act rather than react, scream rather than develop intense emotions. 

Many of the chorus admirably stay in character, listening and reacting to the dialogue, while others draw attention to themselves, upstaging the speeches and song lyrics of the soloists through over-wrought gestures and over-done facial expressions. 

Scott Pyle’s musicians play well, though sometimes they get a little overly enthusiastic and drown out the vocals.

The interestingly designed choreography by Josh Landis insured that all the members of the chorus were given the chance to perform.

Todd Plone’s scenic design sets the correct moods, and were intensified by Adam Ditzel’s lighting.  Melody Walker and Lady Jen Ryan did an excellent job of designing period correct costumes.

(Side-comment:  Congrats to Trinidad Snider, a Near West Theatre alum, and one of the area’s premiere musical theater performers, on her appointment as NWT Artistic Director.)


Capsule judgment: “Chess” is not a well-conceived script.  The Near West Theatre’s production was, generally, more effective than the material.

" Chess" runs through August 4, 2019.  For tickets 216-961-6391or go to