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D.C. Theater Review: ‘Chess’

In this semi-staged concert with a new book by Danny Strong, the soaring songs remain weighed down by a contrived story.

With:
Raul Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Karen Olivo, Bradley Dean, Sean Allan Krill, Brice Pinkman, Paige Faure, Pamola Garcia-Lee, Casey Garvin, Nkrumah Gatling, Adam Halpin, Erika Hunter, Sean MacLaughlin, Morgan Marcell, Marissa McGowan, Chelsea Turbin, Christopher Vo, Ricardo A. Zayas.

It’s been 30 years since the musical “Chess,” noted for its engaging score and inscrutable book, survived on Broadway for a scant two months. Could a high-profile revival finally be in the offing? That’s the fervent hope percolating around a robust semi-staged concert rendition that has completed an SRO seven-performance run at the Kennedy Center, showcasing a newly revised script by writer Danny Strong (“Empire”) and a staging by Michael Mayer (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Spring Awakening”). As always, the infectious, melodic rock score offered its usual opportunities for standout performances, but the new book still can’t wrestle an intractable story into shape.

With only two weeks of rehearsal time under its belt, the cast — led by Broadway headliners Raul Esparza (Freddie), Ramin Karimloo (Anatoly), Ruthie Ann Miles (Svetlana) and Karen Olivio (Florence) — delivered a sturdy performance that substituted exuberance for what it lacked in polish. The show’s soaring melodies were delivered with authority, including an act one number, “Merano,” which was sung in the original London production but omitted from the Broadway show. Much-needed comic relief was offered by Bryce Pinkham in the role of the arbiter, offering droll summaries of the proceedings. (“Once again, nuclear Armageddon threatens to ruin the chess tournament.”)

The evenly matched cast seized on their standout songs, to the delight of an audience filled with enthusiastic “Chess nerds.” Lorin Latarro’s choreography came alive in act two with a saucy Bangkok strip scene and a modified Cossack-style number with the guys.

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Designed by Broadway regular David Rockwell, the set put the Kennedy Center’s 19-member Opera House Orchestra onstage, on a two-tiered scaffolding adorned with oversized chess pieces. A rear projection screen behind and above showcased period news clips of Presidents Carter and Reagan, the U.S.-USSR Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT II) and other relevant topics.

This revision’s many ardent supporters include Tim Rice, who first envisioned “Chess” and wrote the lyrics. It’s presented by an ambitious new Kennedy Center initiative called Broadway Center Stage, headed by the organization’s theater VP, New York-based producer Jeffrey Finn.

Unfortunately, Strong’s new book — as is generally said of the “Chess” rewrites that preceded it — underscores the intractability of the musical’s convoluted tale, an implausible love triangle involving the U.S. and Russian chess grandmasters, and the women they love, during the cold war politics of the 1970s and ’80s. It remains comically contrived, especially as act two focuses on the menacing pair of CIA and KGB agents that repeatedly threaten the players if the next match isn’t thrown. Meanwhile, the personal sagas head for a predictably maudlin ending.

On top of all that, sound issues in the Eisenhower Theater rendered the book as indecipherable as the show’s lyrics, delivered at full throttle by the principals and the full company.

Yes, “Chess” has a new generation to entertain and a Russia-obsessed political climate upon which to capitalize: The Bobby Fischer-inspired character is named Freddie Trumper, after all. But like the two grandmasters on stage, lyricist Rice and company might have more chin stroking to do before making their next move with the troubled musical. If indeed the new script is the determining factor, they could be at stalemate.

D.C. Theater Review: 'Chess'

Eisenhower Theater; 1,110 seats; $199 top; Opened, reviewed Feb. 16, 2018. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Production: A Kennedy Center and Broadway Center Stage production of a semi-staged concert presentation of a musical in two acts, with music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Danny Strong, adapted from the original book by Richard Nelson. Executive producer, Jeffrey Finn.

Creative: Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Lorin Latarro; sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Kai Harada; music direction, Chris Fenwick.  

Cast: Raul Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Ruthie Ann Miles, Karen Olivo, Bradley Dean, Sean Allan Krill, Brice Pinkman, Paige Faure, Pamola Garcia-Lee, Casey Garvin, Nkrumah Gatling, Adam Halpin, Erika Hunter, Sean MacLaughlin, Morgan Marcell, Marissa McGowan, Chelsea Turbin, Christopher Vo, Ricardo A. Zayas.

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