Chances are if you haven’t been in the Sarasota-Manatee area for long, you’ve never seen a production of the musical Chess, with music by ABBA’s Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice, here. I’ve only seen it once myself, and my memories of the show, which is now onstage at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, were vague.
Turns out that really doesn’t matter, as this show, which began as a concept album and later had a long London run, has changed radically from its origins, and productions tend to vary somewhat in which version of the story they tell. That story is complex enough to require a plot synopsis in the program book, which may not bode well for the audience’s comprehension.
The inspiration for the show springs from that famous 1972 world chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky, and the Fischer counterpart here, named Freddie Trumper (Cory Woomert), bears some of Fischer’s less pleasing attributes, like being rude, crude and obnoxious. His Russian opponent, Anatoly (Omar Montes), is more sympathetic a character, separated from his wife, Svetlana (Sarah Cassidy), and, perhaps improbably, strongly drawn to Freddie’s chess second, Florence (Dianne Dawson), who has a tragic back story all her own.
While the triangle and especially Florence’s role in it are the center of the show, the pressures and tensions of the Cold War era are a constant presence as well. It doesn’t take long to realize that the moves of the game here don’t relate necessarily to the match being played by Freddie and Anatoly, but to the respective governments and their agents, Molokov (Mike Nolan) and Walter (Rodd Dyer), who are manipulating things behind the scenes.
That aspect is brought to life by Ken Mooney’s set design, which often includes large flag representations from both countries, along with video projections. (A chessboard that mutates into the shape of a globe is especially pertinent.) And Joseph P. Oshry’s lighting is likewise helpful in backing up the rock score, which includes some songs you have probably heard (One Night in Bangkok, Heaven Help My Heart, I Know Him So Well) as well as some you haven’t.
The leads of the show handle those songs, occasionally tricky in their tempos and lyrics, quite well, as does the orchestra led by Aaron Cassette. But the Richard Nelson book doesn’t always engage the emotions successfully enough to make us care for the characters’ plights, even as the actors are working hard to do so. The roles aren’t fleshed out enough, partly because, I suspect, the emphasis in Chess has frequently been on spectacle instead.
Unfortunately, while the ballads and duets in this staging are powerfully delivered, the bigger production numbers don’t pack much punch. Quartet, featuring Florence, Molokov, Anatoly and the game arbiter (Scott Vitale), works, with its chesslike steps around the stage. But One Night in Bangkok doesn’t have the exotic, seedy atmosphere and moves one expects, and an early number meant to symbolize something about money and marketing, Merchandisers, never develops at all.
Your liking for this game, therefore, will mostly depend on your fondness for the score, which definitely has its strengths. Chess continues through Feb. 28; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeperformingartscenter.com.