Theatre Review: CHESS THE MUSICAL at 11th Hour Theatre Company

Cold War Games

Growing up a theatre kid, Chess was the stuff of legends. Featuring a great pop score and legendary performances in the Original London and Broadway cast, the show was only to be experienced via Original Cast Recording or Concept Album. It was never, ever actually put on. The reasons why that is slowly revealed themselves to me as I watched the two-and-a-half-hour concert at Christ Church Neighborhood House.

The show has been famously difficult for directors and producers to put their hands around. In fact, there are two vastly different versions (the London version and the American version). These have entirely different plots, songs, settings, and characters. The version we have here is the London production, which has the original storyline and a streamlined book. We watch back-to-back international chess championships where the West and the East are pitted against each other through their respective competitors, one from the USA and one from the USSR. There is brinksmanship, love, deception, and intrigue. However, after watching the show it is hard to tell if the shows writers (ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice) know much about the cold war…or chess.

What the show lacks in dramaturgical logic it makes up for in power ballads. Hoo boy they are plentiful here. Two cast members, in particular, are up to the challenge to sing their faces off: Amanda Robles (as the love interest of both competitors, Florence) and Luke Brandt (as the Russian chess ace). Elsewhere, Jack Henry makes for a plucky, overconfident, American chess whiz and Ben Michael shows off a hearty bass. Lokyon Luke Kim has a lot of fun as the Arbiter. They are joined by an ensemble of 14 Temple University Musical Theatre students. 

The show is a challenge for theatres of almost any size. It requires a large cast that can sing its challenging 80s pop/rock score. Its themes about nationalism are dated (although perhaps newly resonant). What place is there in the cannon for such a hulking, unsubtle mess of a show? Nonetheless, it is a uniquely fun and specific piece of 1980s megamusical spectacle. I am grateful that I got the chance to witness it. Checkmate.

Chess the Musical runs through January 19, 2020 at Christ Church Neighborhood House. Tickets can be purchased at https://11thhourtheatrecompany.org/shows/chess-the-musical/.

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