Written by Richard Nelson, with music by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (both of ABBA fame) and lyrics by Tim Rice, this show is a huge surprise on so many levels, and offers a real treat for music lovers who want to see a side of these two musicians most of us never knew was there.
Based on my experience with Lakewood, the theatre often takes a chance with its season opener. (I fondly remember Nine from a couple years ago, which was one of my top picks of the year!) Chess is no exception. The story opens in a hideout in Budapest during the 1956 revolution. During this bloody period of history, Hungarians revolted against the Soviets, who had seized control of their country in 1945. Young Florence Vassy (Addie Contreras) hides with her father Gregor Vassy (Doug Zimmerman) and a chess board.
Fast forward to 1979, as two grandmaster chess players–American champion Freddie Trumper (Norman Wilson) and Soviet champion Anatoly Sergievsky (Kurt Raimer) meet at a tournament in Bangkok. Tensions are high between the USSR and the USA, as well as with the chess players. Trumper is intent on throwing his weight around, and Sergievsky knows just how to get under his skin. Both are committed to winning.
Both players have managers, and Trumper’s is none other than Florence Vassy. When she and Sergievsky set eyes on each other, the sparks fly–with international implications. Things get ever more complicated as politics takes precedent over the games, and many things are not as they seem. Megan Misslin (as Servgievsky’s estranged wife Svetlana), Bobby Jackson (as Ivan Molokov), Matt Brown (as the Arbiter), and Joey Cote (as Walter) round out this outstanding cast.
It’s a good story and a great musical. While many of the Ulvaeus-Andersson songs definitely channel the ABBA sound, this is not a pop musical. Classical elements and complicated harmonies lend an operatic quality to the music that leaves traditional pop far behind. The sound is big, rich, and sometimes joltingly sharp. It is a joy to hear every one of the songs in Chess!
The three leads possess an abundance of talent, amazing voices, and theatrical chops, but every voice in this show is wonderful. There is beautiful dancing too, particularly in the edgy “One Night in Bangkok”, choreographed by Laura Hiszczynskyj. Director John Oules and music director Darcy White have done an outstanding job of making this show so special. A shout out to costume designer Patricia J. Rohrbach. Every one of Ms. Freed’s ensembles is a work of art.
Chess continues its run at Lakewood Theatre Company in Lake Oswego through August 12. Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!