Political pawns


Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Richard Nelson
Directed by Mark Harborth
Gallery Players
199 14th Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn (718/595-0547)
Equity showcase (closes May 18)
Review by David Mackler

As the latest production in its series of defiantly not the usual shows (no Music Man for them), Gallery Players presented the musical Chess, which started life as a concept album with music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the two Bs in ABBA), and lyrics by Tim Rice, whose collaborations with Elton John have brought him some success. The show was less than successful on Broadway, and it's not hard to see why. For the most part, the songs are generic, formulaic, and not terribly inspired, and the book is, well, it's a mess.

But it's a pleasure to report that Gallery Players once again put together an astoundingly good production -- well-designed, well-staged, mostly well-acted and -sung -- even though it couldn't hide the fact that Chess is a rather mediocre piece. It's sort of a romantic triangle, sort of commentary on politics circa the late 1980s, sort of about the things some people will do to win. But the metaphor of people being manipulated by events out of their control (like, oh, chessmen?) is stretched very, very thin. Yet Timothy J. Amrhein's set design, even though it was configured out of the expected black-and-white squares, was vibrant (and enhanced by Peter Leonard's lighting), Jenna Rossi-Camus's costumes were exact for character, and director Mark Harborth used the moving screens and stage pieces to give a good sense of movement. Since the plot is also sort of based on the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky chess match, one protagonist, Freddie (Scoop Sloane), is an arrogant American, one is the possibly manipulative Russian Anatoly (Jason Watson), and between them is Florence (Michelle Lane) -- formerly involved with one, soon involved with the other. That she is also a chess champion is kept secondary to the posturings and attitudes of politics, but while these three are front and center (Watson was particularly good), it was the secondary characters, or more specifically the actors playing them, that gave this production its shine.

Molokov, the Russian agent who keeps an eye on Anatoly (Joe Enderson); Walter, the American talent agent who turns out to have more going on than he first admits (Jan-Peter Pedross); the arbiter who oversees the matches (Mitchell Scott Shapiro); the junior Russian agent (Matthew L. Morrison); all brought a light and intelligent touch to their scenes, and although she doesn't show up until nearly the end, Mary Mossberg as Anatoly's wife Svetlana was riveting in her simplicity. As for the leads, Sloane's ugly American was difficult to root for, and he indulged the rock idiom of the songs for their last bit of juice. (Admittedly, the music encourages this sort of performing, and the lyrics don't make for a sympathetic character.) As Florence, Lane was hampered by a character that's mostly a deus ex machina; still, she gave a real sense of feeling to the show's signature songs "Someone Else's Story," "Nobody's Side," and "Heaven Help My Heart." But it was Watson's Anatoly that was the heart and center of the show, inasmuch as there was such a thing, with his solid and sympathetic stage presence.

The orchestra was kept backstage, but they sounded far larger than their six players: Brandon Sturiale, Ken Legum, Yaron Koren, Matthew Lo Ré, Doug Thoms, and music director/conductor Brenna Sage. There's not much you can do with a number like "One Night in Bangkok," but Kristian Korsgaard's choreography (and the ensemble) helped enormously.

Also with Garret Lambert and Sophia Curran, and in the excellent ensemble were Rachael Bell, Noah Brendemuehl, Amie Duffy, Ryan Fries, Tiffany Hampton, Brian A. José, Elton Lin, Dana Mauro, Patti McClure, Erin Romero, Steve Velardi.

Box Score:

Music/Lyrics: 1
Book: 0

Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 David Mackler