Surflight’s “Chess” is a total checkmate
Surflight Theater righted the ship when it came to the musical “Chess,” putting on one of the most powerful shows I’ve seen in over 30 years at the landmark Beach Haven.
Lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber have developed an interesting formula to bring their early 1970s shows to life. It takes a ton of money to put on a musical in London’s West End or Broadway . So they decided to test the waters – and raise money – for their proposed shows by first producing albums, coming out with Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 and Avoided in 1976. These albums sold millions of copies and quickly became hit musicals on both sides of the pond.
Rice had long wanted to create a Cold War musical and was fascinated by the 1972 “Chess Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. So, after “Evita”, he decided to frame a musical about the competition between the United States and the USSR using chess as an allegorical centerpiece.
Webber, however, was busy with a small project called “Cats”. So Rice approached ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus for the music and they decided to follow the Rice/Webber mold, which worked like a charm. First.
1984’s “Chess” album was a big seller in much of the world. A London theatrical production followed in 1986 and, like “Superstar” and “Evita”, was performed in sung form. It ran for three years and was later ranked seventh in a list of “essential musicals” in the UK in a BBC Radio 2 poll.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum — oops, on the way to Broadway — in 1988. Director Trevor Nunn decided to rework “Chess” for an American audience. The score was rearranged, settings were changed, characters were added, and most importantly, playwright Richard Nelson was brought in to make it a simpler musical book.
Andersson said at the time: “The main difference between London and here is that in London there is only about two or three minutes of spoken dialogue. Here, to clarify some points, it’s almost a third of dialogue.
The reworked show was a disaster. The added dialogue made it about three hours and 15 minutes long and was rambling. It was unsuccessful, running for only 17 previews and 68 regular performances and was raked in by many critics. In fact, even though I was addicted to the album, I hated the Broadway show.
Why did Nunn do it? He had had great success with singing shows such as “Cats” and “The Miz”. Why didn’t he let the music do the talking?
Surflight producer art director Steve Steiner did. It went with the London version with just a few tweaks. A good decision because the cast of Surflight definitely scores with the score. Simply put, the incredible singing of vibrant and beautiful songs produces a feast for the ears. And ditching the added dialogue brings the show’s time down to a manageable two hours and 20 minutes, including intermission.
American Freddie Trumper (Danny Crowe) tries to defend his championship during a match against Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Noah Lyon) in the spa town of Merano, northern Italy. The match referee (Austin Jacobs) knows he has his work cut out for him and warns the players in song:
If you think about the kind of thing
What we’ve seen in the past
Gurus singers, walkie-talkies,
Tempers, fists – not so fast
This is not the start of World War III
No political ploys
I think both of your constitutions are great, so
Now you know – be good boys
Controlling Trumper proves impossible. He punches a chess reporter, knocks over the chessboard in disgust in the first game, and though he’s just acting to demand more money – like Fischer did in 1972 – he’s pretty much a total ass.
Rice drifted into the esoteric writing about Cold War chess and politics. But he was wise enough to add a love story to the mix. And that makes sense because romances can very well feel like a game of chess. There are the all-important opening moves, the convoluted mid-game as the lovers figure out how to deal with realities as the first blush fades, and sadly, often a slowly developing and almost unavoidably rousing end game. breakups.
Florence Vassy (Christa Steiner) is Trumper’s second and lover, Hungarian-born and raised in England. She is fed up with his antics and decides to leave him. It’s not easy, as so many breakups are, and her anger and pain shine through as she sings perhaps the most powerful song on the show, “Nobody’s Side.” Steiner absolutely rocks the house singing it.
Never make a promise or plan
Take a little love where you can
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never stay too long in your bed
Never lose your heart, use your head!
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Florence has fallen in love with Anatoly and this completely upsets Freddie’s game and he quits. Anatoly is the new world champion and Freddie feels sorry for himself and justifies his rude behavior at the same time in the musical’s second show, “Pity the Child”.
He had seen his parents’ marriage dissolve. When his father left, “I didn’t miss him – he made it perfectly clear to me that I was a jerk and probably queer.” But her mother “never let her bed get cold”. Freddie could always escape through his games. Yet his estrangement from his mother left him haunted:
Rather have pity on the careless mother
What she missed
What she lost when she let me go
And I wonder if she knows
I never call. Something crazy to do
Just in case she says, “Who?”
How powerful is the song? It really makes you feel sorry for Freddie, an almost impossible task.
At the end of Act I, Anatoly defaults to the West. It’s a brutal choice because although he hates the government of his country, he leaves behind a wife, Svetlana (Sophia Swannell) and children. Plus, he really loves his country, as shown in the closing number of Act I “Anthem”. If a developing country needs a national anthem, it can consider borrowing this one.
The action of Act II moves to Bangkok a year later where the political games heat up as Anatoly defends his title. Alexander Molokov (Steve Steiner), Anatoly’s second original and a surefire KGB agent, tries to get Anatoly to start his match against another grandmaster from “The Soviet Machine” and he has an unlikely ally in Walter. De Courcey (Mike Brennan). Freddie is now a television commentator who is on the scene and Walter is his boss. Walter is working with the US government, trying to arrange a series of prisoner exchanges – think of Brittney Griner’s current situation – and he’s got a trick up his sleeve. Florence’s father was presumably killed by the Soviets during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, hence her move to England. But Walter tells Florence that her father is alive, a Russian prisoner, and that he can be sent to the West if she can convince Anatoly to throw the match.
Will Anatoly do it? How is Freddie involved? Will Florence find her father? Can Anatoly leave his wife and his family, who will surely be sent to the Gulag if he does not defect again?
“Chess” is a complicated story of international relations, game history, business opportunities and, above all, love affairs. It can be overwhelming. Indeed, in 2001, Rice admitted to San Francisco Chronicle that even though “Chess” was his all-time favorite “maybe it costs the average person too much intelligence to keep up with it”.
I witnessed this when I followed “Chess” at Surflight. The audience seemed stunned, reacting in much the same way as the audience I saw after watching “Schindler’s List” twice in early 1994; they left in almost total silence. Usually, people leave a Surflight matinee in a frenzy — love or hate a show, wondering where they’ll go for dinner, and worrying about traffic on Long Beach Boulevard. But I wandered the lobby and the sidewalks outside the theater after “Chess” and the only comment I heard was “what voices!” In effect.
The entire Surflight cast, especially Christa Steiner, Crowe, Lyon, Jacobs and Swannell, hit almost unbelievable high notes, delivering their fantastic solos, duets and company numbers with passion and conviction. The score of “Chess” hovers like the American eagle. Don’t worry about the plot line. Just fly with the music.
“Chess”, wonderfully directed by Elizabeth Lucas and choreographed by Elizabeth Troxler, will be played until Sunday September 4th. Tickets are $41 for adults and $31 for children 12 or younger – though it would take a chess prodigy for a kid to catch the show. They can be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the Beach Haven box office.