Tonight, Marie d’Entremont and I had the good fortune to see the Norton Singers in their 75th season, as they brought down the house at the Orpheum Theatre in Foxboro, MA. It’s no secret that “Chess”, first released as a British concept album in 1984 and later a stage show, is one of my all-time favorite modern musicals. I’ve been blessed to see the original 1988 Broadway production, fated to close after only 68 regular performances. In 2015, my sister and I fell in love with and went twice to see the North Shore Music Circus’ version – starring Jodi Benson (who sang and spoke the role of Arial in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”). Later, we saw an equally worthy staging at The Company Theatre in Norwell, MA. There is a reason that theaters and actors keep this classic alive. It has extraordinary songs that showcase actors blessed with amazing vocal and acting talents. Whereas shows like “Cats” have the 11th hour showstopper “Memory”, “Chess” is distinctive because almost every other song stops the show. This is not an easy score to sing or perform, and tonight the sold-out audience jumped to their feet to show the 37-person cast and 25-piece orchestra just how much we savored every second.
For the first time, to my knowledge, The Norton Singers produced a stage version based on the original 1984 U.K. album, not typically shown in America, and each moment was a pure delight to witness. I commend them for ignoring the much-altered Broadway misstep, that rewrote the book, added way too much dialogue, made the story more confusing, and shuffled some songs around. In tonight’s passionate presentation directed by Ted Mitchell, with music direction by Anthony-Alexander Torelli, dialogue was kept to a minimum, the pacing moved along quickly retaining the rock-opera feel, the excitement built as one hit song led to the next beloved moment. Other stage versions I’ve seen have seemed sluggish by comparison. The show does not need lots of dialogue to slow it down. The music says everything you need to know about the characters. The Norton Singers achieved a daring version that’s so much better than the doomed 1988 Broadway attempt or any other American version I’ve seen. It’s a shame this musical never became the hit it was overseas in the 80’s. I want to beg Mitchell and Torelli to please, please, please re-release this show – with this cast again – in the near future so many more fans can get to experience it live. One night simply isn’t enough!
The story is simple. During a Cold War-era chess match, a cocky American grandmaster butts heads with the Russian champion, who falls in love with the orphaned woman who manages the American. The USSR officials promise to reveal the identity of the woman’s missing father, if the Russian loses his final match and returns to his family in the USSR. Broken hearts, meltdowns, secrets and lies, and thrilling showtunes ensue!
The music was written by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA (long before they created “Mama Mia”), with lyrics by Tim Rice, who has written lyrics for “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Evita”, Disney’s “Aladdin”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Lion King” and “Aida”. Not too shabby, right? The original West End cast included Murray Head (Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar”), Elaine Paige (the original Evita and Grizabella in “Cats”), Swedish stage star Tommy Körberg, and Barbara Dickson (“Blood Brothers”). You may remember Murray Head’s 1985 hit song, “One Night in Bangkok” from American radio. Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson scored a #1 hit with “I Know Him So Well”, later covered by Whitney & Cissy Houston on Whitney’s second album in 1987. Rolling Stone Magazine raved that the “dazzling score covers nearly all the pop bases”. In fact, the music ranges from pop, to rock-opera, to orchestral, to dance, to rap. There is something for every one to savor and enjoy. Audience members of every age around us cheered along.
Tonight’s multi-talented cast was more than ready to tear into their juicy roles, and their passion for this work was clearly evident. As Frederick, the American superstar chess player, Mike Daniels was every inch the handsome rogue who demands our attention. Like any modern musical heartthrob, he was poised and confident as he led the chorus, while they danced and rapped their way through a spirited “One Night in Bangkok”. He displayed moments of anger, disregard or love toward his manager, Florence, during their duet, “Florence Quits”. Better still, he took commanded center stage during his tragic take on “Pity the Child”. His keen, rocker vocals often reminded me of Murray Head on the original recording.
As Florence, Adina Lundquist was every inch the leading lady. For Marie and I, she channeled the sultry torch singer look of Lana Del Rey, with a Veronica Lake cascade of blond hair and dressed in a glittering ruby gown. Her skilled voice captivated us as she effortlessly altered singing styles from tender ballads to belting out the high notes like the best of Broadway stars. She held her own alongside her male stars, thrilling us with a passionate delivery of “Nobody’s Side” with the chorus. They garnered a giant ovation from our audience. She performed a tender version of “Heaven Help My Heart”. Her scenes alongside the Russian opponent really sparkled. I rank Adina amongst the best Florences I’ve seen.
As the Russian who challenges the American, Andrew Coutermarsh imbued Anatoly with a brooding calm exterior that belied the dramatic vocal control he issued on upbeat rockers like “Where I Want to Be” and “The Deal”. His command of somber power during Act One’s closing number “Anthem” was electric and brought wild applause. He displayed all the qualities that make Anatoly a dashing leading man. On the ballads he shares with Adina’s Florence, their voices and hands mingled to charm during “Mountain Duet”, and later devastate us during “You and I” in the closing moments. The young actors succeeded in making Marie and I shed tears as we witnessed their love affair crumble, even as we wished this stellar night wouldn’t end.
As Svetlana, Rachel Fisher-Parkman has a small but crucial role as the bitter spouse Anatoly is abandoning (along with their children) to defect to America with Florence and claim the championship away from Frederick. She is introduced late in Act Two with the sympathetic “Someone Else’s Story”, and easily displayed all the emotions her character would feel. Next, Rachel and Adina blended their voices to stun us with the much anticipated hit “I Know Him So Well”, garnering deafening applause. And in the ending’s most challenging number, “End Game”, Rachel, Andrew and Adina tear into each other with the ferocity of Fleetwood Mac after a weekend bender, backed by the entire chorus. It was truly a brilliant, thrilling conclusion to behold. And here’s the secret about “Chess”. It is meant to be seen live onstage, so all of the actor’s emotions and high notes can wash over an audience, like any rock concert. This adroit production achieved that effect and then some!
It is equally stunning to me that the orchestra and large cast rehearsed only a couple of months before creating this unforgettable night. All their hard work paid off. All the hours of rehearsal was worth every second of magic on display tonight. I commend the entire production. The chorus was equally impressive, and amusing on numbers like “The Merchandisers” and “Embassy Lament”. Tim Fleming oozed distrust as Anatoly’s manager, Molokov. Craig O’Connor brought dry wit to Walter, the American’s replacement for Florence. Sara Comeau was fantastic as The Arbiter. I’m not sure other versions have turned this character into a female role, but she took command of the stage when she sang. She’d be equally fabulous and cheeky as Columbia in “Rocky Horror”, no doubt. The constantly changing slides on the backdrop were a splendid touch, and added amusement to the storytelling.
Check out Norton Singers Facebook page to see photos and rehearsal videos from this brilliant cast. https://www.facebook.com/nortonsingers/
If they get nominated for awards on the South Shore for tonight’s concert, we hope they win every one. I give the Norton Singers (5 out of 5 stars.) And if they ever consider staging this show again (please, please, please), I’ll be there with more friends to enjoy your hard work. Tonight was hands down THE BEST performance of “Chess” I’ve ever seen. ~ A grateful fan. =)
Note that in June 2020, they plan to stage the other ABBA hit-show, “Mama Mia”.