Chess is a challenging game, and the British musical by that name has defeated more than a few directors since it arrived on these shores in 1988.
However, Towson State University's Maryland Arts Festival and director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall have come up with a winner -- the most accomplished musical production I can remember in the festival's 12-year history.
If you think of chess as a quiet, cerebral game, you'll be surprised by the passion in this show, which has a book by Richard Nelson and a pulsatingly strong score by lyricist Tim Rice and composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, of the former Swedish rock group, ABBA. Less surprising is the fact that, as staged by Marshall -- who has collaborated with her brother, Rob, on two previous "Chess" productions -- almost every scene is as carefully considered and controlled as a championship chess move.
But it isn't just the seemingly contradictory combination of passion and control that makes this show succeed. At least as impressive is the streamlined clarity of the story, whose twists and turns have reportedly proved the downfall of numerous past productions.
The plot uses a world championship match as a metaphor for the political moves of the United States and the Soviet Union (the production is set in 1988) as well as for the romantic moves of a Russian champion, his American opponent and the American's female second.
In Towson's production, however, the emphasis is clearly on romance, and particularly on Florence, the female second, who discovers that one ostensibly small, personal move can alter the balance of international events. Libby Tomlinson-Gensler is splendid as Florence; her take-charge bearing is stunningly reflected in her singing. Her delivery of such numbers as "Heaven Help My Heart," "I Know Him So Well" and "You and I" is the musical high point of the evening.
The other performers aren't quite up to her level, though several come close, particularly Shawn Patrick Doyle as the Russian, who rises to the occasion both in the romantic duets and in his first-act finale, "Anthem." As the American, Dennis Wood projects a kind of cowboy insolence, even adding country-western flavor to his songs, which include the hit, "One Night in Bangkok." But while Wood's voice booms through the loud, angry passages, he tends to fade in the softer moments.
In addition to her work with individuals, director Marshall adeptly handles the large cast as a whole. For instance, in the first scene in the chess arena, the ensemble moves in military-style unison -- an effect that suggests how strictly the competition is regulated. The choral work conducted by Michael Decker is similarly precise.
There are also a number of small telling moments -- frequently heightened by designer Gregg Hillmar's simple abstract set, which consists primarily of a chessboard floor echoed by a metal rear-wall grid. Early on, while the Russian practices in his hotel room, his second paces on the far side of the grid. The impression conveyed is that the Russian is in prison, or at least under surveillance, and this impression is verified when the second is revealed to be a KGB agent.
Such attention to detail -- as well as to the larger picture -- distinguishes this production. And, underscoring it all is the fact that Marshall and company have made sense of a show that has eluded many of their predecessors. The result is checkmate and victory for the Maryland Arts Festival.
Where: Mainstage Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Osler and Cross Campus drives, Towson State University
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees July 11 and 18 at 3 p.m. Through July 31
Tickets: $14 and $16
Call: (410) 830-2787