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Chess: Vagabond Players Deliver the Checkmate

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BmoreArt’s Picks: October 31 – November 6

The Vagabond Players have opened their 108th season with a handsome production of Tim Rice’s Cold War rock opera Chess. Under Stephen M. Deininger’s excellent direction, this neglected work has come back to Baltimore’s Broadway with a bang. 

Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longtime collaborator, developed the idea of a musical based on the 1978 World Chess Federation Championship, a match overshadowed by Soviet-European tensions and the personal life of the star player, Viktor Korchnoi. Webber, preoccupied with Cats, wasn’t interested, so Rice persuaded Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA to prepare the music. Chess appeared as a concept album in 1984; the stage version ran in London from 1986 to 1989. 

When it premiered, Chess was the most ambitious effort yet to present a rock opera with an original and detailed plot, and highly developed characters. (Efforts to turn Chess into a “book” musical for the American market failed, and the resulting production ran for only three months in 1988.)

The Vagabonds’ production was conceived, according to the director, to be “a play last, and first and foremost a concert.” The overall style of the production is a 1980s discotheque. Geometric patterns are projected on the back and side walls of Stephen Deininger’s set. The effective lighting, by Kaite N. Vaught, includes plenty of special effects; Audra M. Mullen’s costumes reflect the fashions of the 80s. Katie Sheldon’s choreography seamlessly blends disco moves and movements necessary to the action.

 

Jonathan Lightner as Freddie Trumper
Tiffany Dennis as Svetlana and Samantha McEwen Deininger as Florence
Tiffany Dennis as Svetlana
The Vagabonds’ production was conceived, according to the director, to be 'a play last, and first and foremost a concert.'

The vocals by both principals and ensemble are first-rate. The standout is E. Lee Nicol, as the troubled chess master Anatoly Sergievsky; his “Anthem,” the first-act closer, conveys the character’s conflicted feelings about his country. Conflicted allegiances are, in fact, the theme of Chess.

At the opening, Anatoly is facing Freddie Trumper, played by a suitably sullen Jonathan Lightner, in a championship match in a region of Italy with a mixed population, “where borders are always shifting.” Freddie’s manager, and possible lover, is Florence Vassy (a glamorous Samantha McEwen Deininger). Florence is effectively stateless; she fled her native Hungary in 1956. Her emotional borders are shifting too. She and Anatoly fall in love, and Freddie, shaken, loses the match. Anatoly defects to the West with Florence, leaving his wife in the Soviet Union.

Two years later, Anatoly is again trying for the championship, facing a top Soviet player known as the “Soviet Machine.” The Soviets, taking no chances, promise to release Florence’s father if Anatoly throws the match. To further unnerve Anatoly, they produce his wife, Svetlana, played by Tiffany Dennis with the right mix of dignity and anguish. She wins over Florence, who agrees to give up Anatoly. Anatoly wins the match anyway and returns to his homeland with Svetlana.

Chess has been more popular in Europe than in this country, perhaps because there East-West relations seem like an endless chess game. Since the second World War, maybe longer, Europe has been the chessboard, the nations, the pieces. As tensions rise over Ukraine Chess seems timely again. Hopefully the game will continue without someone overturning the board.

 

Chess will be playing at the Vagabond Players, 806 South Broadway, through November 19. For more information and reservations, visit www.vagabondplayers.org.

Full Cast of Chess at Vagabond Players

Photographs Courtesy of Vagabond Players

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