Now in their 51st season, the Gallery Players have long been a reliable presenter of fine, fully staged productions of big Broadway musicals in a small but well-equipped space. Excellent recent productions of Ragtime and Gypsy bear this out.
So what happens when they take on a bad big Broadway musical? Chess is a thoroughly maddening show. This 1980s wonder, loosely inspired by the legendary 1972 world chess championship match between American upstart Bobby Fischer and Soviet champ Boris Spassky, boasts thrilling music and beautiful melodies by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, great tune after great tune, all planted incongruously amid a dud of a book. (A version with a new book by Danny Strong was recently performed at the Kennedy Center.)
The story of a bad-boy chess master, thwarted love amid Cold War tension, and hopes of refugee reunification had plenty of dramatic potential, but Richard Nelson’s attempt to craft it into a compelling story for the stage fell woefully short.
Rather than rehashing what’s wrong with Chess, I’ll describe why it’s still possible to enjoy the Gallery Players’ production. The music is perhaps the most advanced artistic evolution of glossy ’80s pop. And while I’m sure there are some curmudgeons out there who weren’t fans of ABBA’s sunny sound, Andersson and Ulvaeus were brilliant songwriters, master craftsmen not only of shiny dance tunes but also of lovely songs of love and loss.
“One Night in Bangkok,” inescapable on radios in 1984 and 1985, comes from this show. So do several emotional songs that have become ubiquitous at revues, cabaret shows, and musical theater auditions: “Heaven Help My Heart,” “I Know Him So Well,” “Someone Else’s Story,” and more.
Carman Napier and Doug Chitel, who play the across-the-Iron-Curtain lovers Florence and Anatoly respectively, both have warm, appealing presences and good voices. Unfortunately, music director Benjamin Jacob’s adroitly played keyboards drown them out during their more softly sung passages. Fortunately (sort of), the overarching story isn’t compelling enough to make missing some of Tim Rice’s often clever and artful lyrics too painfully frustrating.
With colorful charisma as the American chess champ Freddie, Joey Donnelly works hard to enliven the story, and has the pipes, though not quite the range, for the role’s challenging vocal demands. That his big revelatory number comes so late that we’ve long since lost interest is only one of the show’s innumerable flaws.
John Gibson is good as Soviet operator Molokov and has a voice with the power to stand up to the keyboards. Jennifer Walder is powerfully affecting in the small role of Anatoly’s abandoned wife Svetlana. Jay Braver’s touching “Father’s Lullaby” goes some way toward injecting pathos into Florence’s story, though again too late. And Jan-Peter Pedross is a drolly underhanded Walter.
Keyboardist Jacob and drummer Miranda Siffer were out of sync more than once, threatening to throw off the actors and making me wonder if the musicians could see one another. And a final nitpick on something that could be an easier fix: The show is actually about chess. So when Anatoly makes the first move in the climactic final game, it should be with the white pieces.
Chess is worth seeing for the music alone, and despite the balance problems this production puts it across well. “Someone Else’s Story” is beautifully sung and staged. “Nobody’s Side” sounds spectacular with the female company members backing up Napier. “Anthem” is a militant charge reminiscent of moments in Evita, “Endgame” thrills even if you can’t follow most of the lyrics, and so on.
I didn’t see the original Broadway or West End productions in the 1980s, but from all I’ve heard, this great music couldn’t save them either, even with the likes of Murray Head, Elaine Paige, and Judy Kuhn in lead roles. So we have to accept Chess for what it is: the peak of ’80s pop music-theater crossover, perhaps forever to frustrate theatergoers who yearn for a good book to complete a satisfying experience. Chess runs through May 13 at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn. For tickets and information visit the Gallery Players website or call 866-811-4111.