When I first heard about the musical Chess, I thought to myself, “Wow, is there also a musical about doing your taxes?” Because I couldn’t imagine a more unlikely, and less interesting, subject to sing about.
Despite having never seen or read about the show until I attended Rising Tide Productions’ debut performance of Chess at Reno Little Theater, I wasn’t too far off the mark. The musical, a pop opera, takes place during the international chess championship played between the United States and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War—and was about as exciting as I’d expected.
The chess championship takes place in Bangkok between reigning champion Anatoly Sergievsky (Jeff Chamberlin), the moody Soviet, and challenger Freddie Trumper (Mark Emerson), a flamboyant, tantrum-throwing, spoiled American. Freddie arrives with his manager, Florence Vassy (Julie Lenz), whose Hungarian roots become a plot point, while Anatoly’s handler, Ivan Molokov (Joe Linscott), happens to be a KGB agent. Anatoly seems to have the championship in the bag until he and Florence take a shine to each other. Chess is their Cold War-torn love story.
Tim Rice conceived and wrote the lyrics for Chess; Rice is noted for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita). Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA wrote the maddeningly tuneless, often chaotic music. The only memorable song is “One Night in Bangkok,” which Murray Head, who played Freddie in the show’s premiere, first made famous.
The show has repeatedly earned scathing reviews since its debut in 1988, for the reasons I’ve cited here. It’s a damned-near-impossible show to do well, both musically and dramatically, because the book and music both contain so many problems.
Rising Tide Productions, a new Reno theater troupe, couldn’t have selected a more challenging piece to launch with, so I applaud their temerity. Chess is directed by David Tolles and Nicole Dzadek Tolles, with musical direction by Neal Dluzak Long, and choreography by Jeanette Conkey. They’ve done a fair job, and obviously put in hard work, with the material. However, a lack of across-the-board tightness in performances, numerous troubles with sound and overly complex staging created problems from the get-go.
The standout performances are by Chamberlin, whose Anatoly has the most emotional depth of any character and whose singing is the most consistently strong (although not entirely), and Lenz, a trained soprano who also is one of the show’s best features. However, her excellent voice is actually far too powerful for this chaotic material, which unfairly makes her seem screechy in places, even when it’s clear she isn’t usually.
And this leads me to probably my biggest complaint: the sound. Clearly, the directors never sat in the audience to hear how the voices and music worked together. Either the piano (the only musical accompaniment, which gave the songs a repetitive flatness) completely stepped on the voices, making them impossible to understand, or the singing was blaringly loud in order to compete. And at one point, the chorus sings from the hallway a folk song that’s meant to be background but which was so loud that no one speaking on stage can be heard at all.
Members of the chorus seemed occasionally to forget lyrics or choreography, and their movements were often clunky.
And then there’s the set, made up of what seemed like a dozen chairs, all of which needed to be moved, distractingly, between every scene. Though the set design was ambitious and seemed an intelligent take on the chess theme, it was too complex and yet lacking in color. That actually could be said about the show overall.