note: entire contents copyright 2008 by Beverly Creasey
Before the wall came down, way before perestroika, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were extremely busy trying to bury each other in every arena, including chess. Bobby Fischer, who died just a few weeks ago, was the great white Western hope for supremacy in the intellectual realm, while the Soviets were triumphing in sports.
Believe it or not, the Fischer-Spassky world championship was watched on television like it was the World Series. CHESS, the musical, like the game, is an acquired taste. Tim Rice (of EVITA and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR fame) and Benny Anderson & Bjorn Ulvaeus (half of ABBA) have crafted a timepiece inspired by Fischer’s bizarre behavior in the 1972 mega-match. Rice imagines the two chess masters as pawns in an elaborate game of political intrigue, where innocent individuals like Fischer and Spassky are exploited for geopolitical gain. Ironically it’s chess master-turned activist, Garry Kasparov, who now poses a political challenge to President Putin.
What drives director James Tallach’s gritty production of CHESS (at the Turtle Lane Playhouse through March 2nd) is the intense performance of Tracy Nygard as the woman at the center of Rice’s world championship. Nygard proves she’s one of Boston’s top triple threats. She can belt out a showstopper like “Nobody’s Side,” dance up a storm with the corps and act the heck out of a script—this one has her in jeopardy of losing everything. Make that a quadruple threat. She’s gorgeous, too.
It’s no wonder that both opponents want her with them. James Fitzpatrick and Michael Foley make the two men polar opposites. Foley’s American is a loose cannon, where Fitzpatrick’s Russian is melancholy and contemplative. Guess who the lady falls for!
Linda Sughrue’s choreography is razor sharp, with a hip rock ‘n roll sensibility for the pop numbers---especially Tim Abrahamsen’s flashy “Arbiter’s Song”---and a definite edge to the ballet. The most fun comes from the villains, two of them, one for each superpower: Gregory Jon Bonin is a formidable, and devilishly charming KGB agent and Robert Case is hilariously underhanded as the wheeling and dealing American operative. Their duets are musically, as well as dramatically thrilling. Their “Diplomats” number will remind you of EVITA’s “Dangerous Jade” (and that’s not bad-- “Jade” is my favorite number in the Rice/Webber hit musical). They have a ball in the “Let’s Work Together” number, too.
John MacKenzie’s moveable set places the action on risers to enhance the sightlines, a plus at a small house like Turtle Lane without (much) raked seating. Like chess, the musical has a long endgame but the TLP performances make the moves work: games, set and romantic matches.