Held in Check
There was a moment in Chess that undid me completely. It occurred when the heroine, Florence, met the man she believed to be her father -- the father she had last seen in 1956 when, as a terrified little girl, she'd been torn from his arms by the Hungarian revolution. The man showed Florence a family photograph, and she responded contemptuously that of course the baby in the photograph resembled her; babies tend to look alike. As she turned away and prepared to leave, he began to sing a Hungarian lullaby -- and she joined in. I found myself so shaken that I continued weeping quietly into a wadded-up Kleenex through the rest of the play.
When Chess, a musical by ABBA's Benny Andersson and Bjrn Ulvaeus and lyricist Tim Rice, opened on Broadway in 1988, the reviews were scathing. This is what Variety had to say about the moment that touched me so deeply: "It's a potentially moving scene. But the ABBA men and Rice give them a weepy and phony lullaby to sing that recalls the famous National Lampoon magazine cover of a pistol held to a lovable pooch's head: ŒIf you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog.'"
When we go to the theater, we all bring our emotional baggage, ideas, prejudices and entire histories to every performance. So factor into my emotional response the fact that my own father -- who grew up in what is now Slovakia and spoke Hungarian, German and Czech interchangeably -- died when I was four. I have no memory of his voice, though my childhood was filled with the comforting rhythm of Eastern European speech. Factor in also my mother's grief as she sat by the radio in 1956 and heard accounts of Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest and the destruction of the beautiful and cultured city where she had spent so much of her teens.
Misled by Radio Free Europe and the rhetoric of the Cold War, the Hungarians hoped for Western intervention. "Our troops are fighting," said Prime Minister Imre Nagy in a last, desperate radio address. "The government is in its place. I inform the people of the country and world public opinion of this." The West was silent. The slaughter continued.
The Cold War serves as a frame for Chess, which is an account of a match between a Russian champion, Anatoly, and his petulant American counterpart, Freddie. The action takes place in the weeks before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. Florence is Freddie's second, coaching him and attempting to moderate his oafish behavior. Pretty soon she's falling for the kinder and more dignified Anatoly.
For me, a central question was whether the musical used political events with integrity, or only to add some semblance of depth to a lightweight, commonplace love story. The principal characters -- Florence, Anatoly, Freddie and Anatoly's saintly Russian wife, Svetlana -- did lack definition and depth. But I had to admit that Soviet repression, American insularity and the murky Cold War world of spies, betrayal and deception were an inherent part of the plot. Did the music live up to these overarching themes? The lullaby was beautifully sung by Tyler Collins as Gregor and Janelle Kato as Florence. Some of the other songs were charming and others reasonably witty; I loved the lyrical numbers "Someone Else's Story," "I Know Him So Well" and Anatoly's "Anthem" to the soul of his tortured country. But Rice has worked extensively with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the Great Gasbag's influence was all too apparent in the big numbers, which were vapidly emotional and far, far too loud. For a while I kept wondering why Kato, whose voice is a flexible and melodious instrument, kept breaking into unrestrained yelling (it didn't help that her primary emotion through much of the action seemed to be pure irritation), but eventually I realized that the songs were simply written that way. Joel Sutliffe delivered "Pity the Child" -- about the unhappy childhood underlying Freddie's bratty adult behavior -- with so much passion that he sold it. Afterward, though, I felt vaguely manipulated. Not just by that song, but by Chess itself.
The musical is vivid and gutsy, an extraordinary and ambitious choice for a small company such as Next Stage. Gene Kato's production features an excellent cast and a talented live orchestra. Sutliffe is a genuine find as Freddie, and Brian Hutchinson a mellifluous-voiced and appealing Anatoly. As a pair of spies, David Kincannon and David Fletcher are perfect counterparts. Fletcher has the more elegant presence, Kincannon the more pleasing voice.
But overall, watching this show was like experiencing a huge, ineffectual storm: impressive while it was happening, but leaving the landscape unchanged once it had passed. Except for a moment that lingers in my memory.
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