Euan Morton, Jill Paice, and Jeremy Kushnier give vibrant performances in Eric Schaeffer’s exciting production of the troubled musical.

Euan Morton and company in Chess
(© Scott Suchman)
Euan Morton and company in Chess
(© Scott Suchman)

Director Eric Schaeffer has moved the pieces around and tightened up the game considerably, giving Chess, the long-troubled cult musical, a bright new life — aided in large part by the vibrant lead performances by Euan Morton, Jeremy Kushnier, and Jill Paice.

While the musical’s pedigree is impressive — with music by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, lyrics from Tim Rice, and book by Richard Nelson — Chess has had a checkered history over the past 25 years. Wisely, Schaeffer has culled elements from various earlier incarnations (including the badly-received 1988 Broadway production), dropping scenes and songs, putting one tune back in, rearranging lyrics, and trimming the running time by at least half an hour.

In the process, he has focused attention on the love story, diminishing the satirical look at international chess competition as cold-war proxy. The result is a warmer, smoother-flowing show, propelled by Schaeffer’s brisk direction and ending in an emotionally rich finale.

From the opening scene in a Budapest church in 1956 (the year of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets) to the 1986 world chess championship, it is love which holds our attention. That’s the year that Florence (Paice), now an American citizen, finds herself caught between two loves and two worlds. She is the second to the abrasive U.S. champion Freddie (Kushnier), who is facing Soviet champion Anatoly (Morton) a man who has already forfeited much he holds dear for his aspirations,. Soon enough, Florence shifts her affections and loyalty from Freddie, already a stale remnant of the past in this version, to Anatoly.

If the score still sounds a bit like a soft-rock radio station programmed for in-office listening, David Holcenberg’s inventive orchestrations have retained the best of the synchronized pop harmonies, and some of the songs are truly memorable.

One of Schaeffer’s smartest changes is to put Anatoly’s thrilling first solo, “Where I Want to Be” as the third song in the lineup, which lets us know there’s much Anatoly has hidden beneath his calm veneer. With conductor Jenny Cartney’s 10-piece orchestra laying down a heavy beat, Morton’s voice soars beautifully in the aria’s higher passages, while still managing full rock-and-roll energy. The actor also does extremely well by his big first-act closer “Anthem.”

Kushnier’s voice often strains when he hits higher passages, but his precise mixing of swaggering energy and emotional intensity shows us Freddie’s vulnerability behind the annoying bravado. And there’s no arguing that his act two tour de force, “Pity the Child,” is magnificent.

For her part, Paice seems highly controlled in act one, her voice slightly harsh and metallic, underscoring the character’s cynicism. But as Florence opens herself to both love and hope, Paice’s voice deepens and softens. Indeed, Paice and Morton are simply riveting in “You and I.”

Signature regular Christopher Bloch turns in a finely-tuned performance as Anatoly’s Soviet minder, Gregor, while Eleasha Gamble, as Anatoly’s spurned wife Svetlana, unleashes her rich voice to steal the scene in the duet “I Know Him So Well” with Paice. The ensemble number “One Night in Bangkok” is another of the production’s highlights.

Daniel Conway’s black-and-white set is sleek and modern and complements Kathleen Geldard’s period costumes, which serve the story and ambiance well. The same can’t be said of Karma Camp’s uninspired choreography, which is often a jumble of disconnected moves performed by an ensemble that seems, frankly, all too often out of shape physically. It’s the rare false move in this surprisingly exciting production.