Chess has always been a metaphor for war. It is a pitched battle leading ultimately to the death of a king, and the rise of a new regime.
Arlington’s Signature Theater was in previews last Thursday when we saw its first production of the 2010-2011 season. It is the rock musical Chess, which opened in London in 1986 and played in the West End for three years.
Based on a concept by Tim Rice (of Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, and The Lion King fame), the musical tells the story of a world championship chess match conducted in Bangkok and Budapest over an eight month period in 1986. The match pits the world champion, Russian master Anatoly Sergievsky (played by Euan Morton) and the irascible, volatile, and young American master Freddie Trumper (played by Jeremy Kushnier).
While the plot is totally fiction, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the iconic match between the Soviet Union’s great chess master and world champion Boris Spassky and The United States’ young chess phenomenon Bobby Fischer. That match, which made Fischer one of the youngest (if not the youngest) world champions ever, was widely viewed even then as a metaphor for the Cold War.
Chess certainly has Cold War overtones, even though the Cold War was technically over several years before the rock opera was first produced. But the plot is based on the remarkably different personalities of Sergievsky and Trumper. Sergievsky was a married man with children, the child of simple people who had established himself in the upper reaches of Soviet society and politics through his mastery of chess. Trumper had been a child with horrid parents and a chess prodigy. He was very volatile and manic-depressive.
The turning point in the drama came when Segievsky and Trumper’s female chess second, Florence (played beautifully by Jill Paice), fall in love. Florence leaves Trumper to live with Sergievsky, who defects to the west in the eight month interval between the first and second series of world champion matches. Trumper goes into the second half of the championship disastrously behind by five matches to one. As Sergievsky’s life because hugely complicated for personal and political reasons, Trumper moves steadily ahead until with a spectacular finish he captures the championship by six to five.
The play, of course, is fraught with international politics at the highest level – with espionage agents everywhere.
The rock music that frames the play is at times spectacular and always moving, the dancing and singing of the large cast is dynamic and dramatic, the performances are totally first rate. This is a musical that both rocks and provides quiet and poignant moments.
Chess is a relatively large musical with eighteen actors, dancers and singers and a solid eleven person orchestra. It works extremely well in Signature’s intimate Max Theater. We were not just the enthusiastic audience; we were so close to the action that we often felt that we were part of the cast. This is the great thing about both the new Signature Theater stages.
Signature’s Managing Director Eric Schaeffer has another hit on his hands.
Chess runs through September 26. If I were you, I would order my tickets right away. They will be going fast!
Richard Barton may be e-mailed at [email protected]