CHESS: THE MUSICAL (11th Hour): Cold War on the board

Chess 11th Hour

CHESS: THE MUSICAL. Photo by Dallas Padoven Photography.

11th Hour Theatre Company’s exciting and ambitious concert production of Chess: the Musical, just opened at the Christ Church Neighborhood House. It features a big and impressive cast of singers and musicians, with a score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Lion King, Aida), and book by Richard Nelson. If the show’s hit song, “One Night in Bangkok,” isn’t already stuck in your ear, its urgent beat and nifty rhymes soon will be. Corralling all these talented people, including an onstage band of five and a chorus of fourteen, as well as the seven lead singers who move from mic to mic and music stand to music stand, is director Michael Philip O’Brien whose precision and sense of drama makes you almost forget this is a concert and not a fully staged production.

But the trouble with an almost entirely sung-through musical is that the plot—and Chess’s is a complicated one—is hard to follow through the lyrics. If you’re going to see it, it would be wise to read a summary beforehand; here’s brief one: Freddie Trumper (really!) is the American champion; he is brash, loud, vulgar and, as played by Jack Henry, full of cheap swagger that passes for style. His opponent is Anatoly Sergievsky is played by Luke Brandt (whose baritone is gorgeous), as a modest man; when he wins, he defects to the U.S., leaving his family behind in Russia.

Each champion has a second who accompanies him on tour. For Freddie, it’s sexy Florence (Amanda Robles, whose  voice is very musical but whose lyrics are the hardest to understand); she is also his longtime girlfriend. Anatoly’s second is Molokov (the excellent Ben Michael).  Eventually Freddie will stop playing chess and become a tout for the tournament in exchange for a pile of money, and thus the Americans are written off as greedy sell-outs, while the Russians are written off as humble and easily manipulated politically. Florence falls in love with Anatoly while Anatoly’s wife (Rachel DeMasi) is brought to Bangkok to persuade him to return to the motherland. Anatoly’s song about his profound and soulful tie to Russia, “Anthem,” is a standout in the score.

The game of chess began in ancient India and has been played for 1,500 years; it has always been a metaphor for war, with strategy and foresight paramount and sneaky pieces like the zigzagging Knight and the never-straightforward Bishop sacrificing Pawns to the battle. Chess takes place during the cold war; the U.S. and the USSR face off in an international chess match with the world watching. And, watching the show in our time, thinking about Trump and Putin is almost unavoidable.

[11th Hour Theatre Company at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street] January 11-19, 2020; 11thhourtheatrecompany.org

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.