Longwood’s ‘Chess’ makes all the right moves

CAMBRIDGE — The Cold War seems almost a quaint time in history, given what we have been through as a country since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
But for decades tensions between two nuclear superpowers rose and fell with the tide, and competition of any sort between representatives from the two countries quickly became an international event. Then came the duel between eccentric chess genius Bobby Fischer and Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972 that captivated the world.Chess_small
Against that backdrop, book writer Richard Nelson, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the rock group ABBA and lyricist Tim Rice created the musical “Chess,” being performed through May 11 by the Longwood Players at the YMCA Theatre in Cambridge.
The action takes place in 1984 in Merano, Italy and Bangkok in 1985. As it opens, the world chess championship is about to take place in Merano between the charismatic defending champion from the U.S. (think Fischer) and the more reserved Russian grandmaster (Spassky).
The sparks are flying because The American (Kevin Hanley) has walked out of the competition in a tempest despite the best efforts of his second, Florence (Rachel Savage), frustrating The Russian (Athan Mantalos) and his second, Molokov (James Aitchison), who reminds the champion he isn’t playing for just himself, but for Mother Russia.
The Arbiter (Matthew Zahnzinger), the referee for the competition, prides himself on being fair and unbiased, but he is being severely tested by The American’s antics.
Despite her natural hatred for the Russians — her family fell to Russian guns in Hungary in the 1956 uprising — Florence and The Russian strike up a friendship that quickly turns into something more.
The Russian eventually wins the championship and decides to defect to the West, even though he has left behind a wife Svetlana (Eliza Xenakis) and two children.
The Russian finds he is being torn between his new life with Florence and the family he has left behind.
It will all come to a head in Bangkok, where The Russian, Florence, Svetlana, the dethroned American, and the Russian challenger who has stepped in to defend his country’s honor will all gather to see the final moves played out.
Any production of “Chess” is going nowhere without some major league voices, and here there is the booming baritone of Mantalos as The Russian; his voice indeed commands the stage. His classically-trained instrument contrasts well with Hanley’s rocking style as The American, and Savage as Florence and Xenakis as Svetlana are right there with them.
Director Kaitlyn Chantry does a fine job keeping order with a large cast in the cramped quarters of the stage at the YMCA Theatre in Cambridge, especially in the production numbers “Pity the Child” and “One Night in Bangkok.”
Music Director Stephen Peters, conducting from the center of the stage for about a dozen musicians located in several locations around the stage, generates a well-balanced full-bodied sound to accompany the fine voices.
In their 15-year existence, the Longwood Players have become a player on the local theater scene, and their production of “Chess” brims with energy, enthusiasm — and talent.
The Longwood Players production of the musical “Chess.” Book by Richard Nelson, Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry At the YMCA Theatre, 820 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. http://www.longwoodplayers.org