When telling people that I was going to see Chess: The Musical, they questioned why I would be interested in seeing actors don cumbersome costumes as they danced across a large chessboard. The reality, however, was a much more promising premise involving a love triangle between the American and Soviet chess champions, and a Hungarian-American manager during the Cold War.
Yet, rather than foregrounding the love story, the most relatable, human component of this niche wedding of chess to musical addressed the nature of the ideological-political conflict. The main issue with this musical was the attempt to synthesize too many different aesthetics and elements into one play, consequently dedicating too little time to any one of the styles for the audience to have a vested interest. This left each element sorely underdeveloped. Many motifs showed promise: a black and white costume style serving as a metaphor for the stark contrast between the East/West divide or hearkening back to the delineated in the game.
With regard to the set design, screens lining the stage synced with on-stage cameras held by actors and filled with carefully designed logos focusing on the press coverage of the tournament, served as good framework for the story. However, this was interrupted constantly by random other projections, including a cameo by what appeared to be an iTunes visualizer.
The different themes themselves interwoven into the storyline – a love story, the chess championships and the Cold War – were completely disrupted by sub-plot lines. The musical numbers were random at times, ranging from the opening song on the history of chess, to the immigration of Anatoly Sergievsky (Jamie Pritchard) to the UK. While many of these plot lines were compelling, so many of them were forgotten, making the first half feel more like a compilation of semi-related songs with only a few lines of text uniting it as one act.
Daisy Ann Fletcher was the saving grace of this musical. In her role as Florence Vassy, love interest of the competing chess masters, she was able to bring the character’s investment in events and strong, yet powerful personality to the story that the musical otherwise lacked. While few of the songs were memorable, her singing continuously impressed and she performed lines that could have perhaps felt unnatural and flat with animated facial expression and relatable acting. Pritchard’s Sergievsky brought some of the most engaging scenes of the three-hour production to life. While the second act let Fletcher shine and featured a few strong performances, it felt like a long wait to get there.
It is unfortunate that a performance with such energy suffered from the conflict in style. Nonetheless, the power of the leads was impressive and allowed these students to shine despite the pitfalls.
Photo courtesy of Festival Theatre