Sitting through the two and a half hours of a Point Park Conservatory Theatre company performance of the musical Chess you might, like a player of the game, sit there wondering about your next move, i.e.to sit it through to the end or leave at intermission. After all, there have been many outstanding productions of great shows over the years. But, should you choose to stay, you might consider intermission a highlight while you close your eyes and dream about better days when the Conservatory offered something worth its and your time. And then,you might return to your seat with the hope that surprises will emerge. After all, the plot has a few good things going for it. But don't expect too much.
Actually the show has become quite well known and had a good run for the money in London, 1984-87, although a Broadway version lasted for only two months. Since then, people all over the world have bought tickets to 28 other productions.
There is the potential attraction of songs created by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus formerly of ᗅᗺᗷᗅ the Swedish pop group behind highly successful Mamma Mia, along with lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber-collaborator Tim Rice. Should you be among the insufficiently informed about those people, adding to your puzzlement, don’t look for clarification in the program book. There’s nothing about them in the eight pages of credits, although the assistant stage managers get half a page.
Consider the possibility that this is good training, challenging students to make the best of it. Should they go on to professional careers, if they want to work, inevitably they’ll take on roles in junk.
Which is to say, that in this pop opera, you may look in vain to find worthwhile melodies or clever lyrics. Once in a while a few fragments surface, suggesting going somewhere without succeeding, in pieces which sometimes sound like standard rock and sometimes resemble recitatives in third rate 18th century opera. Even a couple of distractions, a southeast Asian production item and a brief Eastern European choral bit don't add much. Nothing the talented, capable performers do can make this thing better. Yet several of them really shine vocally and establish solid personality in not very complex roles. The book by Richard Nelson has some interesting elements, but they don't go very deep.
There’s a romantic triangle involving two top chess players, an American and a Russian, in a world championship, and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other. This also involves political gamesmanship with such obvious elements as the idea that such people are pawns in the struggle. The whole thing centers on a personal contest between American chess master, Freddie Trumper, and Russian, Anatoly Sergievsky, Freddie’s coach or “second” is Hungarian born Florence Vassy, who, tired of his narcissism, falls for Anatoly and he for her. He defects, leaving behind a wife and repercussions affecting his family while she hopes to reunite with her father who may still be alive in Russia dominated Hungary. Apparently the show's plot was inspired by the antics of Bobby Fischer and contrasted with the behavior of other real life masters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.
Director Scott Wise has done a lot to make this look interesting, filling the stage with human scenery in the constant movement of black suited, deliberately interchangeable security people from both sides of the Iron Curtain. He calls forth interesting scenic effects provided by Anne Mundell and adds the now ubiquitous device of live TV camera projections. Such stuff could make you believe that you’re watching something significant but 27 empty songs dominate the experience. In them, Wise has his solo performers avoid histrionics and just stand still delivering their numbers, a worthy choice except that this makes the shallow content even more obvious.
Joe Pudetti stands strong amid the mostly generic characterizations by the cast, giving Anatoly compelling, sincere presence. And he sings magnificently. He has the makings of a star. Keaton Jadwin does equally well in giving Freddie specific, snotty dimension and he handles all the vocal challenges with constant skill. And Ariell Rawding has a lot of class as Anatoly's wife Svetlana.
As for what you won’t discover if you attend, here are facts missing from the program book. The show, like others by different people, began as a concept album, similar to American Idiot,Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. This emerged in 1984 created by ᗅᗺᗷᗅ, a couple of years after the group had split up following ten successful years together. They were Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Wikipedia points out that, as of 2011,Andersson was active with his own band and was executive producer for the film version of Mamma Mia. Ulvaeus co-produced the movie. Certainly there’s much more to read about them on-line, even if not one word is devoted to them in the booklet created by this educational institution.
I can’t help wondering what will be the Conservatory’s next move. Last year there was the dreadful M33. But this fall featured a marvelous version of The Producers. Hey, kids, that’s show business.
Chess continues through March 3rd at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.