SpeakEasy Stage is one of Boston's best small resident theater companies, a company bold enough to bring the quirky and funky to Boston when other theaters play it safe with traditional fare. So it was with much excitement that we anticipated the opening of "Chess" --- the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber's ex- partner, Tim Rice. With music by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of "ABBA" and book by Richard Nelson, "Chess" played to rave reviews in London and although it made its way to New York it never got to Boston. SpeakEasy is to be lauded for tackling such an ambitious project and giving us a chance to see it.
In case your memory of the game of chess is a bit rusty: before Big Blue managed to best Gary Kasparov last month, no one could beat America's Bobby Fischer. His 1972 match with Boris Spassky took on monumental political implications, pitting the U.S. and U.S.S.R. against each other in yet another highly charged arena.
Fischer accused the Russians of bugging his suite, poisoning his food and bribing the officials. He demanded his own chair be used during the match and he wouldn't stay at a hotel without an Olympic-size swimming pool. The musical changes Reykjavik to Bangkok and Fischer's name to Freddie Trumper, but they give Freddie all of Fischer's tantrums, even Fischer's childhood. Surprisingly though, the musical isn't principally about Freddie (Andrew J. DeCorleto). "Chess" focuses on a doomed romance between Freddie's second (Eileen Nugent) and his Russian opponent (Michael Brown).
Working against SpeakEasy's polished production is a set (designed by David Fortuna) lifted right out of "Evita", with a huge bridge/walkway looming above the stage, just waiting for Eva Peron to stretch out her arms and sing Rice's brilliant "Don't Cry for Me Argentina". If the set doesn't bring "Evita" to mind, then the music will. You'll hear snatches of Eva's "Rainbow Tour" in the first scene of "Chess" when the cast sings "Smile, you've Got Your First Exclusive Story". And you'll still be hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber's music at the end, when "Jesus Christ Superstar" (also with lyrics by Rice) intrudes on Anderson and Ulvaeus' "Endgame". When I wasn't wondering whose tune had been purloined ("Rule, Britania" even sneaks into "Chess" in the Russian champ's anthem to his homeland!), I was wondering what Webber must think of all this ... or I was remembering how much I detest disco. The big number in "Chess" is the disco-inspired "One Night in Bangkok" which made the pop charts in the '80s.
Paul Daigneault is one of Boston's most innovative directors and his young and energetic cast includes the fiery Phil Recta as the Arbiter and the savvy Anne James as the Russian's ex- wife, but every scene in "Chess" looks and sounds like the one before. The American second even sings an unfortunate song about living the "same scene" over and over. There's no comic relief, like the Thenardier's "Master of The House" is "Les Miserables". And SpeakEasy can't fix that. The characters in "Chess" are merely pawns, not flesh and blood people we should care about. Alas, not even the mighty Sicilian Defense could save this stalemate.