Chess challenges MVRHS actors, audience

Lucy Benedetto, Hartley Sierputoski, Claudia Taylor front the chorus. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

There was a moment in time, in the early 1970s, when the eyes of the world were on two men playing a game of chess. Millions tuned in to watch the final game of the world championship chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky. Millions more followed daily reports of the six-week match. The competition became a symbol of the Cold War struggle between the world’s two superpowers; much more than a personal victory was at stake.

More than a decade later, Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s frequent collaborator, based his elaborately staged musical, “Chess,” on the famous “Match of the Century” and the politics of detente. Last weekend, students of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School staged a very ambitious production of the 80s novelty musical, which was a hit in London but bombed when it was brought to Broadway in 1988. The music, written by two of the members of ABBA with lyrics by Rice, has stood the test of time better than the show itself.

The high school production, which ran for well over two hours, featured a huge cast; an elaborate set, complete with a lighted human chessboard seen behind a curtain and a working elevator; multiple set changes; large cast dance numbers, and around 30 songs. The amount of work that must have gone into creating such a spectacle and the evident hours of rehearsal time were impressive, but unfortunately the story somehow got lost in the rendering. And the prerecorded music at times overwhelmed the vocals, making the already complicated plot difficult to follow at times.

While there were a few memorable tunes, most of the narrative songs were just dialogue set to music. When the cast actually got a chance to act, they proved themselves quite talented, but it was hard to connect with characters who constantly burst into song.

The actors in the three leads were all strong. Gage Rancich as the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky was perfectly cast. He managed both the character’s remoteness and the Russian accent wonderfully. He also had a very powerful tenor voice. Haley Hewson as Florence Vassy had a beautiful voice and a confident stage presence. Hayley’s masterful execution of some of the show’s loveliest tunes provided the highlights of the show. The talented Taylor McNeely nailed the difficult role of Freddy Trumper, the arrogant American whose cool exterior masks a little boy’s vulnerabilty. And Mr. McNeely’s voice was clear and strong and emotive.

The players (Lucas Amarins, Christopher Pitt, Sarah Dawson, Sam Perman, Emelia Capelli, Aaron Teves) also turned in very good performances, but the nature of the story demanded fairly one-dimensional characterizations: brash, money-hungry Americans vs. emotionless Russian bureaucrats. A couple of adults also appeared, including Ken Romero, whose masterful vocals as Florence’s father led off the production with a promising start.

The show, with a convoluted plot and complicated, challenging vocals, features generally unlikeable characters and an improbable love story. We’re lost in the labyrinthine plot, and the real heart of the story — the idea of the Cold War as a complex game of chess — drew so much on plotting and suspicion and subterfuge that the audience was left wondering what was going on. While this story was likely intentionally ambiguous, the show lost on the entertainment front because of it.

Kudos to director Katherine Poole Murray for selecting challenging material and drawing out exceptional performances from her cast. However, though the difficulties faced in staging the production may have proved a good learning experience for the cast and crew, the audience was left with little to grab onto. Generally not an audience-friendly show, though visually stunning, this behemoth of a production proved less than the sum of its parts.