Strong voices boost Masquerade’s Chess
Chess has a checkered history. Originally a concept album, the musical was a 1986 London hit, then a 1988 Broadway flop. Subsequent stagings have achieved varying results as the show has been reworked to stress its strengths and camouflage its inherent flaws.
It’s much the same game in Masquerade Theatre’s current production, which is best appreciated for the strong singing of its capable leads as they sock across the score’s potent highlights.
The drawbacks begin with the subject. The show centers on an international chess competition pitting American champ Freddie against Soviet champ Anatoly, amid Soviet-U. S. tensions in the last days of the Cold War.
In musical theater terms, it’s hard to make a chess match sing. The show ’s use of the titular game as a metaphor for international politics, love and everything else is simplistic and heavy-handed — as is much about Richard Nelson’s book.
It doesn’t help that Freddie is depicted as a jerk, while Anatoly remains largely an enigma.
Most of the Americans are portrayed as spoiled hotheads, while the Soviets are sneaky and vaguely threatening, right down to the requisite stereotypical accents.
The romantic angle is better. The American’s put-upon assistant ( and former lover) Florence gets fed up with Freddie and falls for Anatoly.
When the Russian defects, a KGB agent sends for Anatoly ’s wife, Svetlana, hoping she can persuade Anatoly to return.
Florence and the late - arriving Svetlana are the show ’s most sympathetic figures, and any involvement it generates comes from them, as well as Anatoly ’s dilemma as the man between them.
Tim Rice’s lyrics are awkward and trite at times — ungrammatical, too, in Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side.
Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus ( half of ABBA) wrote the score mostly in the Europop vein that was already growing tiresome when the show premiered.
Much of the driving, up-tempo music sounds like imitation Andrew Lloyd Webber. One Night in Bangkok, the show ’s hit, is silly and downright naive in its attempt to be hot stuff; in this staging it comes across like a rejected Golddiggers routine from Dean Martin’s 1960s TV show.
Yet the score boasts some undeniably tune- ful stretches and, most important, several effective ballads. Florence gets the best: her establishing number, Someone Else’s Story; the poignant Heaven Help My Heart; and I Know Him So Well, her powerful duet with Svetlana and the best thing in the show.
Among the other highlights are two of Anatoly ’s solos, Where I Want to Be and a heartfelt Anthem to his homeland.
As Florence, Rebekah Dahl makes the most of the role’s opportunities with her accomplished vocal stylings and persuasive acting.
Luther Chakurian plays Anatoly with brooding command and, as always, sings with great power and range.
Brad Scarborough exudes energy and drive as Freddie. Though his character is the least likable — and usually forced to sing in a high rocker wail — Scarborough manages the challenge reasonably well. Kristina Sullivan conveys wounded dignity and sings beautifully as Svetlana.
Luke Wrobel, as ominous KGB operative Molokov, and Evan Tessier, as scheming CIA agent Walter, lend credibility to stereotypical roles and make the most of their big Act 2 duet.
Allison Sumrall brings punch to her turn as the bossy, no-nonsense Arbiter.
Director Phillip Duggins’ staging of the musical numbers is rather mechanical, but he invests the more intimate and emotional scenes with earnest intensity.
LOVE AND POLITICS: Florence ( Rebekah Dahl) watches the action as American champ Freddie ( Brad Scarborough, left) and Russian champ Anatoly ( Luther Chakurian) battle it out in Masquerade Theatre’s production of Chess.