Presented by The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players
Book by Richard Nelson
Music by Benny Andersson and Bjӧrn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Emma Brown
Music Direction by Elena Sokoloski
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge, MA) Chess is a grim Cold War fable told around an international obsession with the titular board game. Director Emma Brown and the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players bring to life the ‘80’s show with a heavy dose of whimsy, suffusing the production with neon-colored nostalgia. Despite some song reshuffling, lyric changes, and obvious fun had by the cast, there’s little they can do to fix a rushed romance and peculiar pacing, creating a hurky-jerky but intriguing roller coaster of a musical.
American chess grandmaster Freddie Trumper (Trey Lundquist, whose character’s name was originally meant to evoke real life Bobby Fischer but now takes on a different meaning in the wake of the 2016 presidential election) is a hot-headed and cruel opponent of the far more humble USSR chess prodigy, Anatoly Sergievsky (Tyler Crosby, whose character’s conflicted feelings over his country also, I think, feel different in today’s political context). They’re playing to determine the new Chess World Champion.
Trumper spends most of the show slinging insults at the Soviet Union and ridiculing his Hungarian manager, Florence Vassy (Meghan Jolliffe). Their relationship is abusive and unpleasant. Vassy and Trumper’s contentious relationship hints they once had a deeper emotional connection, but what remains of any cordiality has already been frayed by the start of the show. There is no sense she would have ever had anything to do with him otherwise. A note in the program attempts to illuminate their venom for one another. Even if the character motivations are murky, the music is extraordinary in its range and catchiness.
The 1984 concept album by Benny Andersson and Bjӧrn Ulvaeus from ABBA is wonderful fun to watch on stage. The musical is best known for generating the synth-pop hit, “One Night in Bangkok.” The fun lightness of the original song remains, but so do the creeper vines of orientalism. Far more entertaining to me were songs like “The Arbiter” (performed by the wonderful Ben Gold), “The Soviet Machine” (Paul Gallagher is enjoyably dastardly as Alexander Molokov), and the heart wrenching number, “The Deal (No Deal).”
Meghan Jolliffe stands out. Her Vassy is a powerhouse. She shines in every song, certainly “Nobody’s Side.”
The show takes off when it embraces its eighties aesthetic, complete with synthesizers and melodramatic rock opera. Its flights of whimsy can be cute—“Embassy Lament” and the choral, absolutely religious “Hymn to Chess” come to mind. Other bits, “Merchandisers” and “Merano,” feel as if they would be more at home in a 1940’s American musical.
I admit, I’m biased. I’ve been inhaling visual stories set during the Cold War recently. My enjoyment of the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of Chess is also colored by the New Wave soundtrack of Charlize Theron’s spy thriller vehicle, Atomic Blonde, as well as the Netflix dramatization of G.L.O.W., a female-only wrestling show that was popular during the decade of excess. My expectations were couched in these very self aware properties. Obviously, a show from the 1980’s doesn’t have the same meta-quality. It is beautifully though often cheesily sincere.
In the show I saw, I’m afraid I witnessed some key technical difficulties. Dialogue was swallowed up (possibly) by uneven distribution of microphones and a couple instruments were out of tune. The ensemble more than once sang out of sync with the orchestra. Hopefully, the crew has since corrected these problems. The show is otherwise performed capably and, whatever its narrative flaws, it deserves the best production it can have.
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Congressional “negotiators” released a spending bill that saves the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities, and National Public Radio until September at which time, the President and his impotent cronies may still cut arts funding. It is ever important to remain vigilant. And, for the love of all that’s sacred, keep creating. If you need help, ask for it. Our existence is our resistance. May the force be with you. – KD
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