In a memorable instance of the medieval tale “Parzival” by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the brave knight Sir Gawain visits the beautiful Queen Antikonie.
During his audience with the Queen, the castle comes under a surprise attack. Sir Gawain, finding himself in the rare situation of being unarmed, defers to the Queen for her advice.
After walking over to a colossal chessboard with heavy chess pieces made of heavy ivory she then proceeds to throw king, queen, and rook against the intruders, using the chess pieces as enormously useful blunt weapons.
This medieval tradition of using chess as a metaphor for war and conflict has continued to our own era.
It was especially true during the Cold War between the United States and the USSR in celebrated matches between Americans and Soviets, notably the 1972 match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.
Such matches are fictionalized in “Chess,” an early 1980s musical by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with lyrics by Tim Rice. Audiences of today are now treated to a version performed by 2nd Star Productions at the Bowie Playhouse through Feb.16.
The production, directed by Michael Lund and choreographed by Karen Lacy, is noteworthy for two reasons: first, it is based on the original UK production, widely held as superior to the American the Broadway production. Second, the show is performed as a full play with music, rather than as a truncated concert version where the emphasis is primarily on the songs.
Dean Davis is excellent as Freddy Trumper, the stand-in for the temperamental Bobby Fischer. Davis performs his tantrums with angry finesse, and his exceptional singing talents match his superb acting. Particularly noteworthy are his moving solo “Pity the Child,” and his work with the Ensemble in “One Night in Bangkok,” arguably the show’s most famous song.
Florence is Freddy’s promoter and lover and portrayed well by Elizabeth Hester, who sings numbers such as “Budapest is Rising” with both enthusiasm and poise. Florence and Freddy hit their melodic and political stride in the duet “Commie Newspapers,” a song made more meaningful given that Florence is the child of parents who left their native Budapest during the 1956 suppression of the Hungarian uprising by Soviet tanks.
Lee Nicol provides an outstanding performance as Anatoly Sergievsky, Freddy’s opponent in chess as well as in love; Florence moves her affections from Freddy to Anatoly, who defects to the West. Gene Valendo’s performance (as Alexander Molokov) brings out another element of “Chess”: the variety of musical styles. This is especially evident when Molokov and his Ensemble do a wonderfully theatric Cossack-suggestive dance in “The Soviet Machine,” and here the choreography is well disciplined but – unlike the Soviet machine – fun.
A seven-piece band performs music, ably directed by Doug Dawson and Jessica Deskin. The much-lauded but challenging score swings back and forth between Russian-style music, rock-laden pieces, symphonic sections and beautiful choral pieces such as “Anthem.”
The staging is spare but effective, using chess pieces and flags to represent both nations and locations, as well as simmering conflict. There is an Italian flag (the first chess match is played in the bucolic South Tyrolean location of Merano), and there is a British flag (representing Anatoly’s defection to the UK). Throughout it all are American and Soviet flags – the American flag emblazoned with a black rook piece and, perhaps ironically, the Soviet flag is set with a white bishop. Interestingly, the American Freddy wears all white, and Russian Anatoly all black, the reverse of the color of chess pieces on their country’s respective flags. Perhaps this represents the show’s authors’ belief that the roles of the two main Cold-War adversaries were interchangeable, at least with their tendency to manipulate players on the chessboard of the world stage.
Summing up, both the music and the acting in “Chess” are excellent. However, the show may not suit everyone’s taste. Some of the characters are difficult and/or difficult to identify within the show.
The show is more political and employs more political symbolism than is common in most popular musicals of today, and it helps to have some understanding of East-West relations during the Cold-War period. Similarly, it helps to have some interest in the game of chess. Those caveats aside, this full-length production of “Chess” is played by 2nd Star Productions in a grand style, making it easy to understand why the show played to sell-out crowds in London’s West End for three years.
“Chess” runs through Feb. 16 at the Bowie Playhouse, located at 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie, Maryland 20715. For more information see http://www.2ndstarproductions.com.