Review: ‘Chess’ at the Kennedy Center

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Who knew a game of chess could be so rock ’n roll? Or so sexy? Or set off rumblings of nuclear war?

The semi-staged concert version of Chess, the 1984 rock opera playing a short run at the Kennedy Center, schools its audience on all that and more in this history play set during the Cold War. 

Ramin Karimloo and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Ramin Karimloo and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Chess has music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus (Mamma Mia!) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, the Lion King, Evita) plus a fresh book by Danny Strong (Empire, The Butler, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay). 

Chess has long been plagued by an overall sense that the book is just too contrived and complicated to adequately showcase the sensational songs. Strong’s new book is sharp, funny, and is a perfect match for a score that keeps the stakes high from start to finish. The cult favorite is reborn under the precise direction of Michael Mayer starring a cast that is an embarrassment of riches.

The principal cast reads as a who’s who of Broadway’s A List: Raúl Esparza (Company, the Kennedy Center’s Sunday in the Park with George) is American chess champion Freddie Trumper; Ramin Karimloo (Anastasia, Les Miserables) is rival Russian chess star Anatoly Sergievsky; Tony Award-winner Ruthie Ann Miles (The King and I, Here Lies Love) is Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana Sergievsky; and Tony Award-winner Karen Olivo (West Side Story, In the Heights) is Florence Vassy, a Hungarian refugee who becomes the center of the emotional triangle. The production also features Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) as the Arbiter.

[Watch a video compilation of the Kennedy Center performance]

Chess is the first offering in the Kennedy Center’s new “Broadway Center Stage” series showcasing Broadway talent in semi-staged, short-run performances similar to New York’s “Encores!” program. Semi-staged concert productions can be tricky as the audience does not know exactly how high to set their expectations for a show that is not fully realized. But for Chess, they can set them high. While several principal cast members have book in hand during the first act, as the action rises to critical mass in the second act, the cast is off book and the performances are searing.

Set design by David Rockwell is minimalistic. The orchestra is elevated above and behind the cast who are seated in chairs in a semi-circle on the stage. There is no set to speak of, save projections on two giant screens on the rear wall of the stage that are used intermittently. Lighting by Kevin Adams and costume design by Clint Ramos perfectly serve the story.

Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Raul Esparza and Karen Olivo in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.

While it may simply be a challenge that comes with playing the Eisenhower Theatre, there were times throughout the performance where the sound mix did not sound quite right. Sometimes the orchestra seemed to overpower the soloists. Also frustrating were the times the male soloists were belting so high it was impossible to understand the lyrics they were singing.

Raúl Esparza, who Broadway lost to Law & Order SVU for six years, is back in musical-theatre-land and the gods rejoice. He brings a layered sensitivity to the tempestuous Trumper. His eleven o’clock number is a highlight of the show. “Pity the Child #3” is a heartbreaking and captivating portrait of a man on the brink. His rock tenor is unparalleled.

Karen Olivo’s Florence is sharp, vulnerable, strong, and weak simultaneously. She is Broadway magic personified. Her “Heaven Help My Heart” is wrenching. Ramin Karimloo has the difficult task of making accessible a character whose battles are largely internal. He nails it whilst being absolutely swoon-worthy.

Ruthie Ann Miles does not appear until the second act which is a real bummer since she is so captivating. Her ballad “Someone Else’s Story” and the duet “I Know Him So Well” are stunning tunes.

And Bryce Pinkham, as the Arbiter, provides perfect comedic beats and narration. His numbers with the ensemble are stand-outs: “US vs USSR” and “The Story of Chess” chief among them.

Come for the sublime Broadway performances. Stay for the fresh book and the rock ’n roll.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Broadway Center Stage: Chess plays through February 18, 2018, at the Kennedy Center–  2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. The show is officially sold out but limited view seats are available for purchase, in person at the box office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600.

Chess also features Bradley Dean (Dear Evan Hansen) as Ivan Molokov and Sean Allan Krill (Honeymoon in Vegas) as Walter de Courcey. The ensemble includes Paige Faure, Casey Garvin, Nkrumah Gatling, Adam Halpin, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Ericka Hunter, Sean MacLaughlin, Morgan Marcell, Marissa McGowan, Chelsea Turbin, Christopher Vo, and Ricardo Zayas.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I usually don’t reply to reviews, but had to say after spending quite a bit of money to travel to see this production it was a letdown. First off, the mix of the orchestra, as you noted, did not sound professional, especially in a place designed for audio. The voices though were almost more of a let down. I have heard better in my local community theater, and quite frankly expect to be wowed by Tony winners and nominees. Paul’s voice quit on him from screaming and he talked it took lower notes . pity the child was the worst I’ve ever heard. Ramon only sang out into his full voice a few times, seemingly holding back until the last few notes of anthem and endgame. Ruthie was was sick, but sang with no emotion. Overall, the company was great and the limited staging was well done, and the arbiter had perhaps the best singing of the night. In summary, I’ve have been so excited to hear a show and so let down by the performance.

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