Chess: The Musical
North Carolina Theatre
Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh
Through July 22
“I don’t know why I can’t think of anything I would rather do than be wasting my time with someone like you.” By the time Florence (Carrie A. Johnson) and Anatoly (Aaron Ramey), the star-crossed lovers of Chess, sing their tentative vows of love, some viewers may be thinking of things they’d rather be doing.
To be fair, North Carolina Theatre faced a daunting challenge in taking on this show. This collaboration between ubiquitous lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Lion King) and ABBA stalwarts Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus has several catchy songs, included the oft-cited “One Night in Bangkok,” which was first released on the best-selling Chess concept album in 1984. In years since, Chess has faced more plastic surgeries than Michael Jackson as people endeavor to create a storyline compelling enough to transform these enjoyable songs into a musical. After the London version was a hit in 1986, the Broadway version unexpectedly flopped, sending writers into a tizzy over how to remedy the American plotline.
Under Casey Hushion’s direction, North Carolina Theatre’s production of Chess does not manage to find solutions to the play’s hurried character development, ungrounded plot twists and lazy attempts at instilling us with any real sympathy for the characters on stage. Florence’s ill-fated history as a child in 1956 Russian-occupied Hungary in the first scene could have provided an interesting background when she later falls in love with Anatoly, who is a Russian. Instead, her character’s complexity as a woman torn between her new love for Anatoly and her history with Freddie (Anatoly’s American opponent in the World Chess Championship, played by Ray Walker) is repeatedly trampled on by the abrasiveness of those around her, namely Freddie, who is an obnoxious ambassador for the United States as he throws several temper tantrums during the events surrounding the championship.
N.C. Theatre’s production of Chess focuses on the flashiness of the musical without giving proper concern to the characters and theatrical necessities like good microphones. Besides the strength of the score, there are a few saving graces in this production, including Carrie A. Johnson’s performance as Florence and some interesting set design, which includes lighted chess squares on the stage and back wall. In the end, though, you may prefer to just listen to the album.