At the height of the Cold War, America and Russia moved the ideological battle to the chessboard.
By Julie LaPorte
Thoughts of chess may not conjure up images of the Cold War, of tensions building between America and Russia, of intrigue and heartbreak. But that’s exactly what you will find on stage at Signature Theatre in their 1980s rock musical Chess. Based on an idea by Tim Rice, who also wrote the lyrics to music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, with a book by Richard Nelson, Chess explores a love triangle between two chess players and a woman amid the backdrop of the 1986 World Chess Championship in Bangkok and Budapest. Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Chess is playing through October 3.
At the 1986 World Chess Championship, high-strung American Freddie Trumper (Jeremy Kushnier) faces off against sophisticated Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Euan Morton). Freddie’s chess second, Florence (Jill Paice), is fed up with Freddie’s crass pursuit of fame and fortune and finds herself falling in love with Anatoly. Their love affair is complicated by the political climate of two countries at war, by Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana (Eleasha Gamble) and by the betrayal at the hands of so-called friends.
Kushnier attacks his role with energy, growling through his songs with true rocker style. But his gruff exterior slips during a moving rendition of “Pity the Child,” exposing a wounded vulnerability that explains much of his bad-boy behavior. Morton is Kushnier’s opposite – sensitive, world-weary and sophisticated. His smooth, strong voice carries incredible emotion, especially during his “Anthem,” and he won hearts with every scene.
Paice was phenomenal as Florence – intelligent, driven, unhappy. Her voice alternated between tough and sweet with stand-out numbers “Nobody’s On Nobody’s Side” and “I Know Him So Well,” her duet with Gamble. Gamble walked onstage and stole everyone’s affections. Despite our fingers crossed for Anatoly and Florence, we couldn’t help but admire Gamble’s classy way of holding herself, of winning our sympathy, of loving Anatoly without hope.
Christopher Bloch played Anatoly’s handler, Molokov, and he was picture perfect as a Cold War stooge – a little greasy, a little ruthless, a little charming. Russell Sunday, as Walter, was a caricature of a 1980s up-and-comer – money hungry, power hungry, willing to make side deals to get what he wants. Chris Sizemore was incredibly entertaining as the Arbiter, the man in charge of the chess tournament, a solid wall of rules and order that no one has a chance of getting through.
Fast-paced, beautiful, moving – Chess is a must-see musical playing through October 3. For more information and to buy tickets, visit Signature Theatre.
Julie LaPorte is a freelance writer living outside Washington, D.C. For the past year she has served as a columnist for Washington Life Magazine – penning reviews for the Performing Arts and the Paint the Town columns. She also works as a political marketing copywriter for candidates in local, state and national campaigns as well as for Congressional franked mail.