'Chess' still a lovely but insoluble puzzle

No one under 45 remembers the 1972 Match of the Century, where mercurial U.S. challenger Bobby Fischer (representing The Entire Free World) whipped chess champion Boris Spassky, somber symbol of the repressive Soviet regime.

That story, augmented by a love triangle, inspired a best-selling concept album in 1984, when ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus set tunes to lyrics by Tim Rice. For 27 years, fans of that score have sought the perfect theatrical adaptation of "Chess" the way Knights of the Round Table chased the Holy Grail - and with about as little success. The Queen City Theatre Company version, lovingly and vividly presented, shows why.

The score holds eight of the best pop-rock songs written for the stage. The lyrics can be witty, stirring and stinging. But Richard Nelson's book is a mess, a series of disconnected sketches. Compelling as the performances may be, they can't make sense of this jumble of Cold War gamesmanship, aborted romances and political or emotional defections.

The story pits American firebrand Freddie Trumper (Jonathan Elliott Coarsey) against soft-spoken Soviet champ Anatoly Sergievsky (Glenn Griffin, who directed). Each has a political boss who jockeys for position, and two characters are indebted to no one: the Arbiter (Kristian Wedolowski), a judge who serves as a "Cabaret"-like master of ceremonies, and Florence Vassy (Alyson Lowe), a British woman who has been the American's lover/minder but comes to care about his foe.

Griffin and choreographer Heidy Ludden keep the action flowing sinuously. Wedolowski, who did the simple set and designed sexy, unsettling costumes with Robbie Jaeger, has used a black-and-white motif that suits Nelson's blunt, black-and-white storytelling style.

None of the singers here is a natural belter, but all of them get around that difficulty by presenting the songs tenderly and thoughtfully, which works.

And Terry Henry-Norman adds soulful bits as Svetlana, Anatoly's lonely wife. "Chess" is the kind of show that introduces this important figure halfway into Act 2, then short-changes her. But when she pops out of nowhere to sing the gorgeous "Someone Else's Story," it's hard to complain.