It’s high time that Signature Theater a.d. Eric Schaeffer, an inveterate tinkerer of troubled musicals, took on the challenge of moving the pieces of “Chess,” that richly scored but verbally bloated tuner about dueling grandmasters. Schaeffer has snipped and revised from among several versions, injected a hard rocker’s attitude and, with help from a talented cast, he delivers a highly satisfying season opener.
The prime attraction of the 26-year-old “Chess” has always been the infectious rock score of Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, highlighted by the pulsating “One Night in Bangkok.” The reason credited for the show’s 1988 Broadway bust and limited resurrections since is the disappointing book initially written by lyricist Tim Rice and modified by Richard Nelson.
Schaeffer has jettisoned much of the tale’s geopolitical baggage in favor of a basic love story involving the character Florence, with a smattering of Cold War intrigue for suspense. Although not very plausible, it holds one’s attention and allows the terrific music to flow. As the writing team’s “Mamma Mia” so richly demonstrates, that’s sometimes all that matters.
While deleting more than 30 minutes worth of material, Schaeffer has revised and rearranged numbers to suit. Lastly, he has infused the proceedings with a dose of high octane, most notably from the energetic ensemble attired in punk military garb that delivers the tuner’s delicious harmonies with in-your-face demeanor. The team is effectively silhouetted by Chris Lee’s neon lighting, while hanging onto every surface of Daniel Conway’s two-tiered set.
A superb trio of Broadway hardened performers has been assembled for the principal roles: Jill Paice as lovesick Florence, Euan Morton as Russian chess master Anatoly and Jeremy Kushnier as his headstrong American opponent, Freddie.
Paice plays the key role’s mercurial demands with full conviction, while her soaring soprano brings chills with the melodies “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” and “Someone Else’s Story.” Morton is excellent as the conflicted Russian coping with too many demands. He closes act one in style with the rousing “Anthem.” Kushnier is every inch the rock star who exploits the character’s impetuous tantrums, then dusts the rafters with fiery numbers like “Pity the Child.” Eleasha Gamble also earns kudos in the minor role of Anatoly’s wife, especially with the duet “I Know Him So Well,” sung with Paice.
Whether this new version of “Chess” merits another bite of the Big Apple is ripe for debate. But for now, it’s another feather in Signature’s cap — an enjoyable show featuring edgy performances, terrific voices and impeccable staging.