Entertainment » Theatre


by Rachel  Breitman
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 16, 2018
Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in "Chess" at the Kennedy Center.
Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in "Chess" at the Kennedy Center.  

In the Kennedy Center's new production of "Chess," there are many creative moves to be made and no shortage of talent on the stage, but somehow the games seem garbled and something is lost in translation.

This production is a rejiggered version of the 1986 musical by ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote the words for such epic rock operas as "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Lion King." With a new script and the direction of Tony Award winner-Michael Mayer, what could go wrong?

Well, a few things. The story has an intense and serious conflict. Immediately a love triangle forms between heart-broken Russian chess phenom and heartthrob Anatoly Serievski (Ramin Karimloo), mentally unstable American chess champion Freddie Trumper (Raúl Esparza), and the Hungarian refugee Florence Vassey (Karen Olivo) who comes between them. This strong cast of Broadway veterans plays the love triangle with gusto, but the story can't seem to find a coherent rhythm. Their emoting about longing, love, isolation and anti-Soviet sentiment somehow ends up sounding hollow.

The piece itself has already survived many incarnations, starting out is 1984 as a concept album, running for three years as a musical on the West End, and then moving to Broadway with a revised book by playwright Richard Nelson for a two-month run.

Possibly the latest challenge to this place comes from Emmy Award-winning writer Danny Strong, who worked on the series "Empire" and the HBO film "Game Change." His modern slang seems anachronistic and glib in the midst of the severe Cold War conflict. Nor does his ironic narration by the Arbiter (Bryce Pinkham) fit with this character's sad songs about mental illness, lost family members, or craving for love under a political regime that doesn't allow for personal choice.

Adding a sense of overall confusion is the playful dance routines by the cast of gray-clad chorus members, who slip into G-strings for an overly sexy rendition of the pop hit "One Night in Bangkok." It almost seems like a mockery of the story's emotional drama to have so much frivolity spliced at random throughout the story and makes much of the story seem off-tempo. Each time the actors try to build to an emotional climax, a silly snipe from the narrator or overly enthusiastic dance number seems to intervene. This chess game seems to have far too many moving pieces.

"Chess" is the first in the Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage series and is produced by Jeffrey Finn. Semi-staged with all the characters onstage at the same time in chairs and minimalist scenery, the overall effect is a lot less polished than most of the productions at the Kennedy Center, even though the actors have more than ample talent. Next up in this series will be "In the Heights" in March and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" in June.

"Chess" runs through February 18th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW. For tickets, or information call 202-467-4600 or go to kennedy-center.org.


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook