Even if the game itself doesn’t move you, the musical CHESS will (at Cambridge Y space thru May 11th). The Longwood Players production, under Kaitlyn Chantry’s astonishing direction, is unlike any other productions of CHESS I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a slew of them. Directors usually fall all over themselves to make coherent drama out of the thin Richard Nelson book for the musical, instead of focusing on Tim Rice’s hip, playful lyrics and the remarkable Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus score.
Chantry puts the music and the music-makers front and center, as if CHESS were a concert opera. (It is after all a rock opera). But don’t let my description put you off. There’s action aplenty and comic choreography galore. It’s just distilled, pared down, as it were, to fit onto a chess board/stage. (In fact, the actual chess moves for the chorus can be viewed even more clearly from the balcony.) If this sounds hokey, it isn’t. Chantry coaxes out the essence of the piece—and then presents it up close and personal. (This production felt like the most intimate, and exciting piece of theater I’d seen in a long time.)
Emotions are enhanced by the distillation—so much so, that in some songs they seem downright dangerous. After all, CHESS is set during the cold war when the actual matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky represented political dominance. Not many people today know who chess superstar Magnus Carlsen is but everyone knew who Fischer and Spassky were because they were pawns in a much bigger game.
The Longwood cast is simply extraordinary, with Athan Mantalos leading the charge as the formidable, charismatic Russian opponent to Kevin Hanly’s wiry American bundle of nerves. Mantalos has breathtaking low notes and a high range just as thrilling (evinced in “Where I Want to Be”) and a command of pathos which almost had me weeping in his gorgeous “Anthem” to Mother Russia. Hanly, too, scores in the sympathy department with his “Pity the Child” (based on Fischer’s lonely childhood).
You can’t have a romantic lead like Mantalos without a few women falling at his feet. Rachel Savage suffers exquisitely in numbers like “[Nobody’s on] “Nobody’s Side” and Eliza Xenakis makes her Act II appearance count in the duet with Savage where they both realize “He won’t be mine.”
James Aitchison plays an intense Russian operative pulling strings to influence the game and Matthew Zahnzinger terrifies contestants as the Arbiter who can “see through any gambit.” Zahnzinger also appears, hilariously, in the British number where English bureaucrats prance about in bowler hats as if they were chess pieces, one leg bent up like the knight, in Chantry’s silly, wonderful gestural “clockwork” choreography.
The chorus, too, has many tongue-in-cheek moments (which I never knew were there), many dramatic moments, menacing the chess stars—and many an opportunity to show off their classical chops (under Stephen Peters’ smart music direction). I heard Handel and Debussy and even Verdi in the score, which alternates (and often combines) rock with the orchestral. You’ll hear strains of EVITA and a little JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, to boot. BUT MOSTLY, because of Chantry’s reformation of the musical, YOU’LL truly HEAR THE MUSIC!