In the pantheon of 1980s mega-musicals, Chess the Musical can be considered a lost treasure, and a concert staging from 11th Hour reminds us why. It has an epic setting and a number of catchy and powerful pop-operatic anthems that lend themselves to belting at full volume on the car ride home. The story concerns two chess grandmasters—one American and one Soviet—battling over a world championship title, politics, and love during the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s.
The strength of the music
All of the lead actors bring power and passion to their vocals—especially Amanda Robles as Florence and Luke Bradt as Anatoly, in numbers like “Nobody’s Side” and “Anthem,” respectively. 11th Hour strips away the blockbuster elements of the production and brings out the strength of the music.
However, the performances become somewhat limited physically, tethered as they are to microphones. This makes the motivations of the characters and the mechanics of the plot seem a bit murky, especially at the beginning. Adding to some of the murkiness are the persistent high-volume rock vocals for this entirely sung-through musical, with scene-setting lyrics arriving at the same level as major revelations.
The central question of Chess is how certain public figures, like chess grandmasters (or athletes or artists), handle the politics always present in or around their work. Should the players attempt to stay neutral (if one can truly be neutral), or is it worth taking a stand and making certain sacrifices with their ambitions and relationships?
Chess remains a cult favorite despite the show's having gone through multiple incarnations with varying success. The original concept album and British production were popular, but Chess bombed when it came to Broadway with a retooled story. There have also been various concert versions and recordings throughout the years. 11th Hour offers great work in what a concert version does best, especially for a show like Chess.
Holding its own
This production centers the rock-operatic and other eclectic musical elements like the choral ensemble, telegraphing how Chess can hold its own with other epic musicals such as Les Misérables or Evita. The concert staging overcomes Chess’s failure to gel into a definitive and memorable fully staged production precisely because this minimalist version highlights the music and vocals. You may not get every turn of the plot or shift in setting, but you fully absorb the characters’ emotions through the music, which makes for a fulfilling concert.
Concert versions possess many of the strengths of intimate productions, especially for shows that have an epic sweep. 11th Hour’s Chess staging doesn't simply present the show in a new light—it brings out the strengths and beauty that can be lost in other formats whose additional theatrical elements fall short. It’s not a watered-down version of the “real” show, but an artistic form that stands on its own, and this Chess is a worthy entry in the genre.
What, When, Where
Chess the Musical. Music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Richard Nelson, directed by Michael Philip O’Brien. Through January 19, 2020, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N American St, Philadelphia. (267) 987-9865 or 11thhourtheatrecompany.org.
Christ Church Neighborhood House is fully accessible for patrons with disabilities. The theater is located on the 4th floor, with elevator access directly to its lobby and a wheelchair ramp for entrance to the building. Please be advised, however, that the streets around the theater are paved with cobblestone, which may prove difficult for wheelchairs. Two gender-neutral restrooms are on the 1st floor.