Chess at Slow Burn Theater Company: A Timely Cold War Musical

For the past month, the world's geopolitical chessboard has been dominated by a blustery pair of familiar figures: the United States and Russia. Their ostensible objective is the stabilization of a country most Americans couldn't find on a map, but it's the uneasy diplomatic brinkmanship between these former rivals that is most captivating — the echoes of a time, no less than a quarter century ago, when a nuclear exchange between these two militaristic nations seemed all too possible.

Patrick Fitzwater, co-artistic director of Slow Burn Theatre Company in West Boca, is not psychic. He could not have foreseen the Crimean crisis. But world affairs have made this an opportune time to resurrect Chess, a ludic musical about cold war tension between the U.S. and Russia, presented in the context of an international chess tournament.

"I call it lucky," says Fitzwater, whose production of Chess opens Friday. "It's putting all of this in the forefront of everybody's minds again. It's making a piece that was developed in the '80s more relevant for us. It shows that history will repeat itself."

Chess premiered in London in 1986 as a hybrid of pop and Broadway royalty. Songwriting Hall of Famer Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) wrote the lyrics, and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA, composed the music, a nonstop stretch of ear candy, with 25 songs comprising the first act alone. Two of its tunes, "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Knew Him So Well," became bona fide hits.

"You hear a lot of ABBA's roots in here," Fitzwater says. "There's not a bad song in the show, and it's very complicated, because there's never any lull in the music. It's like hit after hit after hit. Most modern-day musicals have the one or two moneymakers that everybody leaves the theater humming; this one has several, and I think that comes from ABBA."

"It is very difficult music," adds Matthew Korinko, who plays Anatoly Sergievsky, the Russian chess master in the show. "I would put it on pace with Sondheim, because it's so very wordy. You need to make sure you don't get lost in the words and that you make it understandable for your audience, who might not be familiar with the lyrics."

The story surrounds a world chess championship in Merano, Italy, where mercurial American chess master Freddie Trumper (Rick Pena) squares off against Anatoly, his Russian counterpart. But they're really vying for the love of Florence (Amy Miller Brennan), whom Freddie brings to the tournament but who gravitates toward Anatoly during the course of play. The second act is set in the following year's tournament, this time in Bangkok, where romance and strategy swirl to a head once again.

Pena says he learned a lot about the game of chess when preparing for the role — he had never played before. But as Korinko says, "It's more a metaphor, that life is as complicated as a game of chess. No one game of chess is exactly like another, and no life situation is like another."

For Fitzwater, staging Chess means revisiting a show with a troubled past and improving on previous incarnations, which has become Slow Burn's stock in trade. Chess has gone through numerous narrative revisions since its West End debut, in many cases for the wrong reasons — such as American jingoism — leaving audience members to wonder what the "real" version really is.

"When you purchase the royalties, Tim Rice will say, 'We haven't gotten it right yet, so please take your liberties. Shift things around. Put songs in different order. Try to do what you think you can do to make it work,' " Fitzwater says. "So Manny [Schvartzman, the musical director] and I have been hands-on with it, shifting it and presenting it in different ways and even modernizing it a little bit. The ensemble is wearing more leather. It has more of a Lady Gaga feel to it, to where you can see that these are very modern images dealing with old material.

"Like I said, it just goes to show that everything old is new again."

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John Thomason
Contact: John Thomason