Chess began as a concept album in 1984, and even its most ardent admirers — this writer among them — concede that it’s always been a better album than a full-fledged production. The Bs from ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, crafted one catchy tune after another (”One Night in Bangkok” will be stuck in your head for five nights, minimum), and Tim Rice’s lyrics outstrip anything he ever wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar fans, go ahead, crucify me). But the ultra-accessible, synth-heavy pop score is practically crushed by the clunky, overambitious, Cold War-era story. The plot involves a pivotal chess championship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; a cross-cultural love triangle; the CIA, the KGB, and unidentified spy activities; hostage negotiations; extramarital affairs; and the search for long-lost political refugee family members.
It’s no wonder with each incarnation — concert versions included — Chess undergoes drastic rewrites, cuts, and song shifts. Witness the slick revival at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theatre (running through Oct. 3). Director Eric Schaeffer (Signature’s cofounder and longtime artistic director) has, thankfully, hacked a good 30, 40 minutes off the running time, honing in on the match between tantrum-throwing American Freddie Trumper (Jeremy Kushnier) and contemplative Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Euan Morton) and their battle over Florence Vassy (Jill Paice), Freddie’s chess ”second” and self-described nursemaid. (That’s right, a nursemaid named Florence. Subtle is not exactly a word for playwright Richard Nelson’s libretto.)
Broadway vets Kushnier (Ren McCormack in Footloose), Morton (Boy George in Taboo), and Paice (David Hyde Pierce’s sweetie in Curtains) form a fierce threesome. Paice, the picture of ’80s chic with her blunt-cut bob and black ankle boots, is a particular surprise, displaying considerable presence while unleashing a killer belt on solos like ”Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” and duetting beautifully with Morton on the heartbreaker ”You and I.”
Don’t worry if you’re not up on your mid-’80s Communist history — Schaeffer catches you up with onstage TV screens and a few clips of Ronald Reagan’s ”evil empire” speech. The screens also morph into the stained-glass windows of the a church where young Florence is torn away from her father in 1956 Budapest — another scene that’s whittled down to its bare essentials. One does wonder, with all the cutting and tweaking, why Schaeffer retained the ”Arbiter’s Song,” which takes about 12 verses to render the referee’s two essential lines: ”Oh I’m the arbiter I know the score/From square one I’ll be watching all sixty-four.” And while it’s sung well enough by Chris Sizemore, the Rhythm Nation-esque backup dancers look particularly out of place — and not because Chess’ setting predates the Janet Jackson album by three years. B+
(Tickets: sig-online.org or 703-820-9771)