Tim Rice and ABBA's Cold War Love Story, "CHESS",arrives triumphantly at the Willows Main Stage in Concord!

The Willows Theater Concord in the Willows shopping center in Concord is hosting Tim Rice’s musical “Chess”, a musical that proved to be a huge success in London in 1986. Under the direction of Eric Inman this intriguing musical takes us back to the Cold War scenario in the 1950s and 60s when the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competed for political prominence. The two main socio-economic systems in the world at that time, communism and capitalism (in a democratic setting) played out against each other on every stage, every venue in the world. Each and every opportunity that arose to pit one system against the other, or to play one-upmanship against the other system, was explored. Wide-ranging competition existed in every facet of each economic system’s demonstrate able aspect of life's experience, including ballet, theater, agriculture, manufacturing, space exploration, military power, ping-pong, chess, and sports competition. Each system was crying out for affirmation that its system was the best for its own populace, its own people.

The story revolves around two chess players, an American by the name of Freddie Trumper (Joseph Brunicardi), and a Russian by the name of Anatoly Sergievsky (Zachary Franczak). In addition, the American’s lover and chess “second”, Florence Vassy (Lena Hart), traveled with Trumper. A romantic triangle ensued between the three. The two Americans and the Russian encounter each other for the first time at a world chess championship event in a city described simply as Merano. The Russian has secret plans to defect to the West, which eventually occurs with the assistance of Florence Vassy.

The musical has very heavy political overtones in addition to the subliminal love stories. The sub-story of the political consequences put on Anatoly’s Russian wife, Svetlana, and his family who remained in his home town in Russia, mirrored the often tragic sub-text of social pressures laid on the families of defectors who were left behind and remained in Communist countries after defectors managed to escape.

Lyricist Sir Tim Rice, who has co-authored many award-winning musicals, including "Jesus Christ Superstar", "Aida", "The Lion King", and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat", began work on a musical about how the “Cold War” affected the lives of each country's citizens. Rice used international chess as a metaphor for the competition and game playing between the super powers and it was in this arena that the story’s lead characters struggle with love and personal freedom. He had previously been fascinated by the political machinations of the 1972 "Match of the Century" between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky and perhaps in some ways modeled his characters, especially that of Freddie Trumper, on the volatile Bobby Fischer. Rice had sought to engage his former partner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, in his creative efforts, but when Webber refused, due in large part to his many ongoing projects, including his work on “Cats”, Rice turned to two musicians who were seeking an opportunity to expand their music writing talents into the world of musical theater. The two men, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, of ABBA fame, were anxious to take part in Rice’s project.

The team immediately set about creating a concept album, as Rice had done previously with “Superstar” and “Joseph”. Two numbers from the album did exceptionally well in the charts. "One Night in Bangkok" first appeared on the UK charts on November 10, 1984 and stayed there for 13 weeks, at one point reaching the #12 spot. In the US, it jumped to #9 in April of 1985 and topped the charts around the world as well. Another single, "I Know Him So Well," followed, eventually reaching #1 on the UK charts during its 16 week run. With Chess already a worldwide phenomenon before it had even opened, expectations were very high, perhaps too high. The London production opened in the West End on May 14, 1986 and ran for three years, but the high tech spectacle barely recouped its original ₤4 million cost according to Tim Rice. The subsequent Broadway production basically fell flat on its face and was closed 8 weeks into its run.

The Willows production has an excellent cast who delivers a very exciting production. My sense is that this production incorporates elements of both the Broadway production and the British production. The first act is somewhat less than exciting as it attempts to set up the storyline and to develop the characters’ personalities. It is complex and it was not until the second act that I could really get into the story. The lead performers are very good with the voices of Lena Hart (Florence) and Rebecca Pingree (Svetlana) providing the most exciting performances. While the male leads, Zachary Franczack (Anatoly) and Joseph Brunicardi (Freddie) have very nice voices, there were songs which seemed a bit out of their range when they had to hit certain high notes. Jessie Caldwell was quite excellent as Anatoly’s Russian “handler”, Ivan Molotov, as was John R. Lewis, who played Freddie’s American “handler”, Walter Anderson. Lewis is not only an excellent actor, but commands a terrific singing voice as well. The choreography by Staci Arriaga worked very well and the dancers and ensemble actors contributed in large part to a very successful opening production. As with many opening performances, there were some minor problems, primarily with the sound system. This production also incorporates a 6 piece orchestra to provide the full scope of this beautiful music by Andersson and Ulvaeus. The musical numbers I loved best were “One Night in Bangkok”, “Pity the Child”, “I Know Him so Well”, “Heaven Help the Heart”, “Winning” and “Anthem”. Several songs are still raging around in my brain and I went on the internet this morning to find and listen to a couple of YouTube versions by different performers, just because I wanted to hear the music again!

“Chess” is a complicated and memory stirring trip back to the days of nuclear standoff, bomb shelters and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is also a complicated love story as well and the Willows does a good job bringing back an operatic style musical that is one you do not get a chance to see performed a great deal.
This outstanding, thought-provoking musical, “Chess”, continues Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., now through October 30th . The Theater is located in the Willows Shopping Center, next door to the REI outfitting store, at 1975 Diamond Boulevard, in Concord, California. To purchase tickets, call 798-1300 or visit the Willows Website at http://www.willowstheatre.org/ for more information.