Star rating: ***½ stars
Checkmate, Eric Schaeffer. Signature Theatre’s musical genius has a winning strategy with Chess: Pare down the story, focus on the brilliant score, hire exceptional actors and singers, put them in a dazzling setting, and let the game begin. The result is a theatrical delight.
Confession time: I never played chess, though I dated plenty of smart boys who did. I’m told that the original production of this musical in the ’80s focused much more on the arcane world of professional chess. It was a hit in London and a miss in New York. Signature’s incarnation uses the 1956 international-championship chess game as a mere backdrop for the Cold War games being played by the United States and the Soviet Union.
For non-chess players, this approach is far more compelling. The soulful Soviet Anatoly Sergievsky (Euan Morton) and the brash, narcissistic American Freddie Trumper (Jeremy Kushnier) are both the players and the pawns. Throw in the beautiful Florence (Jill Paice), who starts out on Trumper’s team but falls in love with Sergievsky, and the action moves even farther off the chess board.
Morton, Kushnier, and Paice are Broadway veterans with the chops to make the most of many magical moments. The local talent—including Helen Hayes Award winners Eleasha Gamble, Christopher Bloch, and Russell Sunday—is right up there with them. The best love duet of the evening, “I Know Him So Well,” is sung by Paice and Gamble, who are in love with the same guy. The breakout song, “One Night in Bangkok,” is still hypnotic. There are one or two numbers in the first act that I might have cut, but it’s hard to quibble with the energetic pace of Chess or the stellar performances.
I’m not spoiling anything by revealing who wins this game of Chess—the audience.
At Signature Theatre through September 26. Click here to purchase tickets ($67 to $86).