I saw Signature Theatre’s handsome production of Chess Sunday afternoon. When the principals of the new staging were belting out the big numbers of the show, I was transported to a state of audience bliss. Cabaret Scenes cover-boy Euan Morton gives a rousing first act close with “Anthem.” Jeremey Kushnier’s “Pity the Child” shows how much subtlety can be wrought while still pounding out a rock number. Jill Paice delivers a sequence of showstoppers including a heart-wrenching “Someone Else’s Story,” a plaintive “Heaven Help My Heart,” and a riveting “I Know Him So Well” (in a duet with the always-fascinating Eleasha Gamble).
Unfortunately the other 60% of the show is much more problematic. Although director Eric Schaeffer has worked to tighten the narrative, bring focus to the story, and minimize the gaps between those great moments, the script contains a number of daunting hurdles. The Cold War background of the play, with references to symbols like the Berlin Wall, now sits in a nether zone between immediate concern and nostalgic memory. None of the principals is in any way sympathetic or endearing to the audience. And none of the characters seem to develop as the evening goes on.
The writing is also hugely problematic. Much of it sounds like it was written in another language and simply fed through an online translation program. Many of the expository lyrics sit badly on their melody lines. And the dialogue often sounds like Berlitz English language lessons, rather than capturing the voice of individual characters.
This script is made much more convincing by Signature’s handsome production. And the combination of Signature’s intimate space with the tremendously appealing cast goes a long way to mitigate the weaknesses of much of the material.