There's a shopworn adage about the '60s to the effect that if you can remember them, you really didn't do things right. There's no equivalent about one's being able to remember the '80s, except that if you can, you're getting kind of old. A parallel mustiness can be found in Chess, a show first staged in 1986 with book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice, and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the less visually pleasing half of ABBA). In the hands of Minneapolis Musical Theatre, it's goofily endearing, if at times as dated as a Martha Quinn coffee mug.
The plot is full of fussy subtexts and historical allusions (a 1989 touring production brought along a writer to make changes as current events played out), but its broad contours involve the end of the Cold War. The action opens in Bangkok, where crazed American Freddie Trumper (Tim Kuehl) is set to play for top-dog chess-master status against dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Thomas Karki). Complicating matters is Freddie's Hungarian-born handler Florence (Emily Brooke Hansen), who catches Anatoly's eye. The two promptly fall in love and the chess match flounders amid lunatic posturing. Soon, Anatoly is talking about castling from east to west.
Preposterous, you say? Thanks, that's just the word I was looking for! I'd dismiss it out of hand if the chess world hadn't recently been gripped by a bizarre feud between grandmasters Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov over the use and misuse of a private bathroom. Anyway, about five minutes in, following a tune called "The Story of Chess" delivered by a fussy overlord called the Arbiter (Shaun Nathan Baer, throwing himself into it), on a stage painted like the old pair of Vans that saw me through high school, it becomes apparent that the cast is going to approach the action with gusto. Evidence of tongues occupying cheeks, in other words, is nowhere to be found.
Let it be conceded that the work has its own demented integrity. Karki plays his Russian as a big, soulful lug with a taste for irony (I've been to Russia. They're really like that). Hansen spars nicely as a romantic foil searching for her own identity. She's obviously much younger than her part, but has a sweet-but-combative presence to compensate. The tunes lean heavily on keyboards. And while they're generally catchy (if at moments wordy to the point of self-parody), at times they hit the ear with soft-prog density. Alan Parsons, we hardly knew ye!
On the subject of sweating to the oldies, the appalling rap sequences in "One Night in Bangkok" finally make sense after 22 years of obscurity. And we come to understand Trumper's personality problems when Kuehl employs a familiar bray to lay the blame at the feet of his mother—reference The Wall for details.
This is definitely a small-theater experience. On opening night there were enough sound glitches to set nerves on edge. And my seat on the non-tiered main floor at Hennepin Stages meant that for stretches I was more familiar with the backs of my fellow audience members' heads than with the action on the floor. In the end, though, I'll admit to being won over, even as the second act began to grow tedious. The cast draws out their daft characters with reckless passion, and their lack of irony is probably a reasonable strategy. And as far as nostalgia for the '80s goes, the feel of plastic and uranium that runs through this show suits it fine.