“Chess” isn’t about chess.
Nor is it about the Cold War, though it’s set in a Cold War-era confrontation between U.S. and Soviet chess champions.
This checkered Tim Rice/Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus musical is about a love triangle among three glamorous, independent-minded people. Keep this in mind, and parts of the Long Beach Civic Light Opera version of the musical are good, glitzy fun.
But parts of it are hazy. Some of this is in the writing. The rest of it is in the sound system. As so often happens in the Terrace Theatre, a strong production is sabotaged by far too many muddied lyrics.
Anyone expecting a serious treatment of chess, the game, is in for a shock. It’s difficult to show what’s happening on a little board to a 3,000-seat theater audience.
So we get periodic bulletins about who’s winning. We get dancers dressed as chess pieces maneuvering around a stage that’s designed like a chess board, but their moves are primarily for background. If anything, director David Bell’s choreography of his living chess pieces suggests what’s happening among the lovers, not what’s happening in the game.
In the goofiest vulgarization of the game, we get the arbiter (Eddie Mekka) of the world chess championship, conveying authority by dancing and dressing as if he were the arbiter for dress-up night at the disco in “Saturday Night Fever.” It’s wacky, but it almost fits the 1979 period.
Of course, the 1979 Cold War period doesn’t fit the mood of today’s glasnost . This really doesn’t matter. Lyricist Rice and writer Richard Nelson emphasize how the ostensible divisions between the countries don’t count for much. Florence (Jodi Benson) sings, “Nobody’s on nobody’s side.”
Florence is the assistant to the American champ, but she falls for the Russian. That song, “Nobody’s Side,” sets up her romantic defection from the American and the simultaneous political defection of the Russian. It’s a tense moment, near the end of Act 1, and Benson belts out Florence’s anxieties with the verve of a Bonnie Raitt.
Unfortunately, this is the last truly memorable scene in the show. The first act, set at a tournament in Bangkok (and including the cheesy but compelling “One Night in Bangkok” number), tops the second, set at a tournament in Budapest, for both dramatic coherence and expansive spectacle.
The sound quality also worsened as the show continued on opening night.
Still, the singers carry on well. As the Russian, Robert Yacko sends his voice soaring and projects the proper romantic flair. The character’s motivations and behavior aren’t always clear or credible, but at least he’s no stereotype.
As the American, Kim Strauss is a commanding heel. His moments of hysteria are precisely handled. It’s too bad the writers didn’t try to win sympathy for his character until too late in the show (“Pity the Child”), but in the meantime Strauss keeps us entertained.
The Long Beach production is at 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., through Oct. 21. $14-$32.50; (213) 480-3232 or (714) 740-2000.