BY DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA
Minneapolis Musical Theatre is dedicated to bringing rarely performed musicals to Twin Cities audiences. It’s a laudable mission and has brought to light such lost gems of the genre as “When Pigs Fly,” “A Class Act” and “Bat Boy.”
But there are some musicals that deserve to be consigned to the mists of time, and “Chess” — the company’s most recent effort — is one of them.
Conceived by composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the guys behind ABBA and the Broadway smash “Mamma Mia”) and lyricist Tim Rice (”Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Lion King” and others), the 1980s-era musical centers on a championship chess match between the American grand champion and his Soviet counterpart.
Chess is held up as a metaphor for Cold War-era international relations, business dealings, the ineffability of love and just about everything else. Fair enough, I suppose. But the ultra-lightweight, faux-serious tenor of the plot has aged poorly, and the music, though filled with catchy hooks, now sounds as dated as a pair of parachute pants.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production is an unstudied one (note to propmaster Robbie Droddy: laptop computers and cordless telephones weren’t in wide use in the 1980s) that strives more for musical excellence than emotional truth.
Tim Kuehl (a Bobby Fischer stand-in named Freddie), Thomas Karki (as Anatoly, the Soviet challenger), Emily Brooke Hansen (as Freddie’s erstwhile love interest, Florence) and Shaun Nathan Baer (as the narrator/arbiter) all have strong voices capable of handling a score filled with rocky anthems and “popera” pretensions.
But it’s almost as if they spent so much time on the music that the acting came as an afterthought. Granted, Richard Nelson’s book is almost extraneous, since Rice’s lyrics are forever telegraphing precisely what is going on in the characters’ heads. But the story is, among other things, a love triangle, and there’s very little in the way of chemistry among the characters.
Kuehl creates a few sparks, strutting around the stage as the cocky Freddie, and Hansen pouts prettily as Florence, but Karki makes for a soggy Anatoly. So neither the chessboard conflict nor the romantic one ever really kindles.
The musical’s international intrigue angle was once a zeitgeisty selling point. Today, it has all the currency of the War of the Roses, and despite the machinations of Michael Jurenek and Joseph Bombard (who play a scheming Russian operative and his American counterpart), it lacks luster.
The set and choreography are both unaccredited and unremarkable. The former is a monochromatic assemblage that does little to augment the proceedings. The latter strives for the funky, but most especially during a go-through of “One Night in Bangkok,” leaves you in an uncomfortable cold sweat muttering “Please … don’t … dance.”
Director Steven J. Meerdink might have been able to ameliorate some of the show’s datedness with a firmer hand that treated the material as the historical curio it’s become. But he seems content to let the material stand as it is, and consequently, his production of “Chess” largely winds up in a stalemate.