CHESS THE MUSICAL music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, lyrics and book by Tim Rice (Mirvish). At the Princess of Wales (300 King West). To October 30. $35-$175. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NN
Midway through Chess The Musical, American chess player Freddie Trumper takes a nighttime stroll through the streets of Bangkok, turning away prostitutes, drag queens and invitations to massage parlours to return to a chess championship.
It's a detour in more ways than one, but a welcome one. One Night In Bangkok, the soundtrack to this interlude and a big pop hit in its day, is one of the few moments of straight-ahead enjoyment in this Mirvish remount.
It's also the easiest scene to understand in a show that, especially for those new to it, is near-impossible to follow.
Chess tells the story of a love triangle between chess players - one American, one Soviet - during the Cold War. The woman whose affections they share is from Hungary - making for an elaborate political subtext. The affair takes place across two years, two continents and two world championship chess matches.
Craig Revel Horwood's production races through intricate plot points, and some of lyricist/book writer Tim Rice's most crucial dialogue is so muffled as to be inaudible.
The show benefits from the dazzling chess-inspired set, with white and black game pieces battling in over-the-top Gaga-esque costumes and gold-lamé-clad dancers playing real instruments recreating the seedy streets for One Night In Bangkok.
But it suffers in most other areas, including casting. Trumper, an uptight American, is played too coolly by James Fox. The Arbiter, the championship referee meant to be an unemotional Euro bureaucrat, is instead portrayed as a sort of sexualized goth by David Erik.
Elsewhere, though, Tam Mutu is magnetic as Soviet champion Anatoly Sergievsky, and the women he's attached to, Rebecca Lock and Shona White, turn in a stunning rendition of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus's I Know Him So Well.
When Chess was first released as a concept album in 1984, its elaborate, intertwining plot was its strength, making repeat listens a pleasure.
Staging it is a different story. As it moved through London's West End to Broadway by 1988, the plot was deconstructed and reconstructed many times over - resulting in extremely uneven productions.
This one, unfortunately, continues in that tradition.