by Dan Solomon
Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning: Chess has music that’s great, but it’s never really worked as a stage show. This is why nearly every major production has seen the book re-written and the show tinkered with, and the musical’s problems don’t get solved by the Summer Stock Austin-Austin Playhouse co-production.
Set in 1979, Chess starts with an American world champion and a Soviet challenger battling for chess supremacy at a match in Merano, Italy – with all the Cold War implications that carries. That set-up is just a backdrop for the show’s forbidden love story, though: The American champion – temperamental Freddie Trumper – finds his second, Florence, falling for his opponent, Sergievsky. The two lovers leave Merano together, with Sergievsky defecting to the West.
In the second act, Chess more or less dismisses Trumper, who had been set up as the protagonist, introduces Sergievsky’s heretofore unmentioned wife, and never manages to sort out who or what, exactly, the show is about (Sergievsky? Florence? Trumper? Cold War tensions? The game of chess itself?).
That’s the mess that is the plot, which director Michael McKelvey wisely mitigates by focusing instead on staging the most interesting-looking show that the Playhouse’s temporary home at the Mueller Development can handle. Working with sharp angles, black and white grids, a multi-tiered stage, and meticulously selected costumes, the production presents enough visual interest to cover some of the plot’s deficiencies: Chess’ book may struggle to make clear the intricacies of the battle between the cultures of the commercialized West and totalitarian U.S.S.R., but in making every costume and set-piece red, white, and black – a color scheme that both Joseph Stalin and Coca-Cola understood the power of – this production finds a striking way to get the point across.
The performances are strong, as well – Marita Stryker’s Florence carries the show on her voice, and when Josie Yount appears as Svetlana, Sergievsky’s wife, the combination of the two on the musical’s signature number, “I Know Him So Well,” delivers on the promise of seeing Chess in concert. Jacob Trussell, meanwhile, imbues Freddie Trumper with a manic energy that puts him in sharp contrast with his Soviet opponent – even if he struggles not to go flat when it’s his turn to sing – while David Gallagher’s restrained performance suits the character of Sergievsky well.
For a show that’s nearly three decades old (the Cold War setting, in the musical’s initial incarnation, was fiercely relevant), Chess still feels like something of a workshop. As a staging of an imperfect show that’s forever in development, though, Summer Stock Austin and Austin Playhouse shine up the best parts and downplay the sloppier ones, which is the mark of success on a show like this.