The '80s weren't a good time for anyone: the fashions, Reagan, big hair, etc. And in no area was the barrel's bottom scraped more than musical theater. We're talking Andrew Lloyd Webber, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, et al. By 1989, there were only three Tony nominees for Best Musical, two of which were revues and the third ran for only 60 performances.
Point Park's Conservatory Theatre presents one of the loopiest productions from that era; Chess, with music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus (the guys from ABBA), lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Richard Nelson.
It's difficult to relate the plot, because I'm not really sure what happens. It's 1986 and we're in Thailand for a World Chess Championship between a bad-boy American, Freddie Thumper, and his stoic Russian rival, Anatoly Sergievsky. Many parallels between chess and the Cold War are made, and a number of unrelated songs get sung.
But then it becomes about Florence Vassy, who left Hungary as a little girl. She works as Thumper's assistant but leaves him and falls in love with Sergievsky. Then it turns into spy vs. spy with the CIA and the KGB doing something unclear but underhanded, and Sergievsky's wife turns up to sing a duet with Florence. Someone defects, then "un-defects," and at the end you're reminded that, as a child, you always found Chutes and Ladders more fun than chess.
Scott Wise is perhaps the only director in Pittsburgh I would have imagined could have the brilliance to make something out of this musical jumble. But ultimately, even he can't fix the unfixable. (The show closed after only two months on the Great White Way.)
A more audience-friendly set design might have helped, instead of Anne Mundell's curious obstacle course, which inexplicably hides half the cast from view. And although, as mentioned above, '80s fashions were terrible, I'm still not sure why Michael Montgomery has costumed the female characters as Century 21 Realtors.
Where Wise has excelled, however, is in getting focused performances from his cast — especially Joe Pudetti's powerfully played and sung Segievsky, and Philip Feldman as an especially oily KGB agent.