Mate and Match

Tim Rice's rock musical Chess has inspired several workaday people to fabricate whole Web sites dedicated to the show. Cyberwriters such as "Jamie" and "Hannah" wax on with astonishing passion, saying things like it's "the best show in the world (in my opinion anyway)" and "I decided to build a Web site on this musical so I could meet new people who are also crazy about it." That's a lot of love for a show that bombed on Broadway in 1988, closing after only 68 performances.

But Rice is no ordinary lyricist; The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are just a couple of the big moneymakers that have dripped from this man's golden pen. And the composers for this show (Andrew Lloyd Webber was busy at the time -- seriously) come from the group ABBA; they're the ones who contributed the shamefully unforgettable, elevator-friendly pop tune "Dancing Queen" to '70s disco culture. The show seemed destined for cult status.

Though Chess never quite made it as a musical, the 1985 Top Ten hit "One Night in Bangkok" was spawned from this creative partnership, as was the European hit "I Know Him So Well" (Whitney Houston also recorded the love song as a duet with her mother).

Even better, the story that governs the action is rich with dramatic possibility, dated though it is. The spunky cast at Masquerade Theatre is giving its all to get that drama going.

Framed inside a $100,000 chess match that takes the characters around the world, the real conflict of Chess focuses on cold-war Russia and the way political repression affects the lives of its pawns. Two players, a Russian and an American, battle in a series of games that are months in the making; both end up losing more than they ever thought possible.

Dark and smoldering, with an eye for the ladies and a wife who is far away, Anatoly the Russian (Luther Chakurian) is everything the American is not. He loves the elegance of the game, and he loves his country, which he sings about with an almost fevered patriotism in "Anthem."

Freddie (Troy Menn), his cocksure, greedy opponent, loves nothing and nobody and whines about everything, including that most American of complaints, his lonely childhood and his useless parents. He has so little regard for his freedom, as he struts around his hotels, that he won't even allow an American statesman to watch the games.

Between these two men comes Florence (Bethany Daniels), Freddie's second. Prone to gargantuan tantrums, Freddie accuses Anatoly of cheating, with yogurt no less. Once the bratty American has stormed out of the game, Florence tries to smooth things over with the ruffled, handsome Russian, only to end up falling head over heels.

He too seems to find love at last. Trouble is, he's from the other side of the iron curtain. When the man defects, the real chess match begins, but now the stakes are human.

The idea seems promising, but perestroika happened so long ago that teenagers know about it only through history books. Thus the material comes off as dated. Even more troubling, the musical has gone through so many changes in its history (apparently Freddie and Florence were lovers in an earlier incarnation) that the narrative line often feels as though it's been cobbled together from different stories. The character of Freddie now seems to be a sort of clever afterthought. And though he's the one who sings "One Night in Bangkok" with lots of sexy, exciting intentions (Menn does a terrific job with this pop standard), the song flashes out of left field and seems like it was wedged in just because it's so famous.

The love story is still powerful, and Chakurian, as the brooding Russian with the stubbled erotic. As the brokenhearted Florence, Daniels is a bit pinched, both in her voice and in her carriage, although she holds up her end of their duets.

The big disappointment in this production is the chorus members, many of whom are so weak that director Phillip Duggins would have been better off without them. Chakurian and Menn are so strong, one can't help wishing they had the run of the stage all to themselves.

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Lee Williams