Chess: A Musical is nearly saved by director Rod Lansberry

Did you understand it?

I couldn't hear the words. They just kept yelling and yelling.

— Overheard in the women's bathroom after the play

The semi-operatic Chess doesn't have a lot of dialogue, and the music ebbs and surges continually like the sea — sometimes lyrical, witty or moving, and sometimes just empty wind. To follow the plot, you need to hear the lyrics — and those women in the loo (whose opinion I heard echoed two or three more times as the audience streamed out of the building) were absolutely right. The sound at the Arvada Center was cranked so high that not only were many of the words lost, but some of the singing actually hurt. I'm thinking particularly of a trio in the second act where Russian chess master Anatoly is reproached by both Florence, the woman he loves, and the wife he has deserted, Svetlana. Florence begins melodiously, but then her voice rises and rises in volume until it sounds metallic. Svetlana joins in. Same thing happens to her. And by the time Anatoly responds to both of them, you want to stick your fingers in your ears and scream — despite the fact that Tally Sessions, who plays Anatoly, has a rich and pleasing voice. And all the time, I was trying to puzzle out what the women were actually carrying on about: Were they grieved or angry? Did each want Anatoly to leave the other for her, or did both just want him to get lost? And what did any of this have to do with the upcoming chess game he was being pressured to throw?

The sound problem is a real shame, because director Rod Lansberry has done many good things with this huge, messy and intractable musical. Chess is the result of a collaboration between lyricist Tim Rice and composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA. The theme is ambitious, an exploration of the Cold War with the game as both plot lever and metaphor: Boorish American wunderkind Freddie meets Russian virtuoso Anatoly at the World Chess Championship in Merano, Italy. The two men are closely watched by their minders, Molokov of the KGB and Walter, undercover for the CIA. The two security agents are dabblers in the murkiest of political arts, and the poison they represent infects individual lives as much as geopolitics. Freddie also brings with him to Merano his Hungarian-American lover, Florence, who lost her father to the 1956 revolution and who promptly falls in love with Anatoly.

Since Chess premiered in London in 1986, the scenes and songs have been shifted and re-shifted, and the version Lansberry is premiering at the Arvada Center makes more sense than most. It's also nice to see a musical that has a bit more than sex, escapism and the joys of self-affirmation on its mind. But even this version has some fairly intense silliness. There's the head of the International Chess Federation, for instance, who hovers above and around the action like the epicene Emcee of Cabaret. The role is well played and sung by Sydney James Harcourt, but I can't for the life of me figure out why he needs to be there. There's an infuriatingly self-pitying song in which Freddie howls about his miserable childhood as an excuse for being such a shit. And I could definitely have done without the dopey and oddly dated dancing by a group of people costumed as chess pieces while the two players faced each other across the board.

But what amazing voices Lansberry has secured for this production. If anything could rescue Freddie's "Pity the Child," it's Gregg Goodbrod's passionate rendition. Megan Van De Hey brings a supple, powerful voice to Svetlana; Lisa Karlin, who plays Florence, is also an excellent vocalist. Stephen Day is fine as Molokov, and so is Colin Alexander as Walter, and the orchestra is dead-on throughout.

In a hugely ambitious endeavor, Lansberry brought clarity to the text of a work too messy to ever be a complete success, too good to be allowed to simply die. It's a shame that he allowed technical miscalculations to obscure the beautiful clarity of his principals' singing.