Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeu
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson
Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry
Music Directed by Stephen Peters
"Chess" is an incredibly well-know show in the musical theatre arena, with its setting, overall tone and musicality. Developed by lyricist Tim Rice, ABBA band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeu, it was initially created as a concept album. Rice had done the same with his previous works "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Jesus Christ Superstar". Later, the show premiered in the mid 80s with the book written by Richard Nelson. Now a full-fledged production, many theatre companies acorss the world have produced this famed show. More recently, The Longwood Players in Cambridge opened their production so it was definitely worth checking out.
Taking place during the Cold War Era, "Chess" examines the story of the character simply know as the "The American" defending his championship world Chess title against another, known as "The Russian". The American brings his number 2, Florence, with him to his match, but along the way, certain events occur and like pieces on a Chess board, moves and machinations are made that culminate in an unexpected turn of events, where love, anger and pride come to a head.
The score by Andersson and Ulvaeu is strong, as it contains the tone and feel of their past work in ABBA. However, it's more over-the-top and powerful, specifically in the opening number "Merano". Despite its power in some parts, its uneven and inconsistent. As the music was initially part of a concept album, it truly feels disjointed and lacks cohesion in certain areas. Despite a few missteps, the score is astounding and powerful. The lyrics and book are on the weaker side, as the dialogue could have easily replaced the singing exposition. The story is difficult to follow and to have the subject material examining Chess, it's hard to stay with the show. The story seems very much like a "paint by numbers" plot, and feels like it goes through the motions of a generic story. Even though the music and plot had some questionable moments, Longwood does manage to make the most of it and put on a great production and kept it engaging.
The performances across the board were incredibly strong. Kevin Hanley's American is full of wonderful swagger and carries himself with such astounding confidence. His pipes dominate and his charisma is astounding, specifically in "Pity the Child 2", he simply owns it, bringing new levels to the character. Rachel Savage is wonderfully strong and powerful as Florence. She rocks her song "Nobody's Side" as her voice carries through the space. She brings wonderfully tender yet deep moments to the show. Athan Mantalos' Russian is excellent as well. With such a strong voice, specifically in "Where I Want To Be", he not only has a wonderful grasp on the character, but moments of quiet vulnerability shine through, giving some great depth to his journey. The ensemble, as well as the other characters embroiled in the story, give solid performances. With a choral and epic feel, they are simply wonderous in their moments, continuously bringing the production to new heights. "One Night in Bangkok" is of course a winner for all as well, enabling a rocking good time.
The technical aspects of the production were good in some moments, but it never really added or took away from everything. It didn't hurt the show, but it did contribute all that much. The set was black and white, as it should be, but there were pieces that never really functioned beyond assisting in lighting and setting a few places throughout the show. The lighting was the same, but in some scenes it did have great tones and warm colors that made many things pop. Kaitlyn Chantry's direction was executed well enough, having the orchestra lifted above as well as some strong movements that really gave the production some unique flavor. Like the set, however, some sections did not necessarily hurt anything, but was difficult to get on board with. Having the Conductor towards upstage was distracting sometimes, especially during deeper moments in scenes. However, the placement was a strong choice, as orchestra and music direction were great, and didn't overpower anyone. In staging, some minor issues were scattered throughout, but one moment, "Embassy Lament", gave off a Monty Python-esque feel, thus bringing forth a marvelous display of humor and character. Again, nothing hurt the show, and overall, everything worked well. It was cohesive and it was an incredibly well-put together show.
"Chess" is quite the musical, as it deals with interesting subject material, which is fairly poignant. Its score and book were uneven, but it still offers the opportunity to put on a great show. The Longwood Players did a fantastic job in performances and with the overall production. There a few minor issues, but it did not dim the wonderful work and display of great theatre. Kudos to cast and crew for an excellent show. It is definitely worth checking out.