Rock opera ‘Chess’ develops a metaphor for political and romantic intrigue

"Chess" will be performed Nov. 11-18 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre at UC Irvine.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

“Chess,” the 1980s rock opera that infused international chessboard showdowns with Cold War espionage and love-triangle intrigue, will come to the Irvine Barclay Theatre Nov. 11-18.

The six performances launch the 2017-18 season of UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts Department of Drama and its theme “The Business of Politics/The Politics of Business.”

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the composer-performers behind the phenomenally successful ABBA, and Tim Rice, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Lion King” lyricist, worked five years to ready “Chess” for its triumphant 1986 premiere in London.

Two years later, it came ashore in America only to be beached on Broadway and eviscerated by New York Times critic Frank Rich.

“Understandably so,” said Robin Buck, who directs the cast of UCI graduate and undergraduate students. “It was over-produced and bloated with extra music and convoluted storylines.”

To return “Chess” to its initial impact, Buck and Daniel Gary Busby, the show’s musical director and the Drama Department’s chair, went back to the original London version, tweaking lyrics and dialogue to give the story 2017 resonance and its characters greater depth.

“Every version that has come out since the original concept album and since the original stage version has been different,” said Buck, a 35-year veteran of both performing and professing opera and musical theater. “Rice encouraged adapters to rearrange things in hopes of helping it land better. I chose to end it one way that he suggested and then add an epilogue.

“What’s going on now, with the intrusion into our democracy by a foreign power, is actually much more concrete than some of the fears during the Cold War,” he continued. “We thought it would be appropriate to go beyond the original as a metaphor and actually address the fact that it seems politics are in bed with business, and vice versa.”

When he began researching how to plot their revisions, Buck started collecting articles about how business and politics were tied between Russia and the U.S.

“Almost every day something came out regarding business ties to Russia,” he said, coincidentally a day after a special prosecutor investigating Russian influence handed down a first indictment.

In addition to contemporizing the conflict, Buck and Busby decided a concert staging would help flesh out the two competitors and the other characters.

“The concert staging is not a compromise,” Buck said. “The minimalist staging seems to better capture its intimacy. There is always the feeling of characters in an intensely private moment together, while at the same time the whole world is watching. In this production, the four main characters have these moments of self-reflection and realization that are really existing in their minds.”

They also have given women a stronger presence by switching the gender of the Russian agent Molokova and the arbiter, the competition official who controls the chess match and whose song, “One Night in Bangkok,” was the show’s breakout hit.

“This brings a really interesting dynamic to the show as well as giving these actors [Kayla Kearney and Jennifer Holcombe] a lot of material to work with,” Buck said. “In a sport so male-dominated, we find there are some female grand masters — comparatively few — so the pressure on the arbiter to succeed at controlling everything is greater than it might be on a male arbiter.”

The Irvine Barclay, an independent nonprofit professional theater that receives some support from the city of Irvine and UCI, is dedicated to providing a professional theater experience for UCI students as well as entertaining its audiences.

For that reason, “Chess” will employ a 25-piece professional orchestra.

“Whether it’s students or pros,we always have that level of support,” Buck said. “It’s expensive, but it’s crucial that they be supported by something that is really working at their level.”

If You Go

What: “Chess”

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 11, 16, 17 and 18; 2 p.m. Nov. 12 and 18

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive

Cost: $12 to $25

Information: (949) 824-2787 or

Cris Gross is a contributor to Times Community News.