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Stroyka Theater - ARCHIVE
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Chess
September 18 - 27, 2009
Friday and Saturday at 8 pm
Sunday at 2 pm
Reviewed September 20 by Brad Hathaway

An at-times thrilling score can't compensate for a creaky book
 and poor performances
Running time 3:00 - one intermission
Tickets $20 - $25
Click here to buy the CD


Chess begins with "The Story of Chess." Perhaps a review should begin with "The Story of Chess - The Musical." This musical is based on an idea of lyricist Tim Rice. He wanted to do a musical commenting on the Cold War using chess as an allegorical symbol of competition. He joined with Abba composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and created a score of style and heft. Its concept album sold over a million copies before the show reached the London stage where it ran for over a thousand performances. A transfer to Broadway was significantly less successful, closing in less than two months. The book for the musical was always considered problematic and this production reveals just how creaky a structure it has. It isn't helped, however, by a plodding presentation under director Roman S. Gusso, a mechanical-sounding accompaniment by a live keyboard, bass and drum trio, or performers who, even when they have the vocal range for the challenging score, have voices that give out before the final curtain. Give credit, however, to the design team for an innovative use of a challenging space in the Navy Memorial's Burke Theater. The use of projections is particularly adroit.

Storyline: It is 1980 and an American chess champion goes up against a Soviet one for the international title. His girlfriend, who is also his second, struggles with their relationship and is attracted to the Soviet challenger who defects to the west, leaving a wife behind the iron curtain.

Rice, the lyricist who gave us Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (not to mention the little-known The Likes of Us) with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Aida and The Lion King with Elton John, has recently re-thought the musical and presented a drastically re-written version in a concert that was telecast and released on DVD and CD. (Click here to read our review of that release.) Andersson and Ulvaeus, of course, are also well represented on stage with Mama Mia! approaching its 8th anniversary on Broadway. The book, based on Rice's original idea is by Richard Nelson whose script for James Joyce's The Dead was so strong that it leads one to believe that it isn't entirely his fault that this idea simply can't make a satisfying musical. At least, it can't in this incarnation.

This new company, which bills itself as a professional theater, is simply not up to the challenges of the piece, and provides a production that would not fare well among some community theaters. Josh Canary and Christopher Furry, as the two chess champions, provide the strongest vocal performances and Walter Gottlieb and David Deal, as their managers/assistants, the strongest acting performances. Furry in particular hits some musical highs with solos such as "Anthem" and "Where I Want To Be" but he falters whenever he sings along with others. The women in the cast fare less well with a wavering pitch both musically and dramatically from Jennifer Gusso as the American's girlfriend who falls for the Russian. Throughout the cast, voices tend to either give out before the show is over or, in all too many cases, not to have the strength even at the start.

John Marlowe is both musical director and accompanist. His keyboard playing is solid but, as musical director, he must be aware that he has the volume on his electronic keyboard set high enough that it competes with rather than supports the vocalists. Blend is also a problem on the chorus performances for every one seems to be singing as loud as they can without regard to the balance with the others.

Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Richard Nelson. Directed by Roman S. Gusso. Musical direction by John Marlowe. Choreography by Roselie Vasquez-Yetter. Design: Roger MacDonald (visuals) Chary Izquierdo (costumes) Michelle Brooks (properties) Josh Canary (lights) Karen Simmons (photography) Corey Bernstein (stage manager). Cast: Zhenya Anderschat, Eric Bricker, Josh Canary, Greg Crowe, David Deal, Christopher Dong, Adrianne DuChateau, Kiva Fecteau, Joanna Frezzo, Christopher Furry, Arielle Granatstein Gottlieb, Becky Granatstein, Walter Gottlieb, Jennifer Gusso, Simon Gusso, Brian Hackman, Morgaine Lowe, Roger MacDonald, Michael Nugent, Denys Petrov, Shelby Smith, Wendy AFG Stengel, Roselie Vasquez-Yetter, Erica Wilmore, August Yetter, Chloe Yetter. Musicians: Jane Creagan, Ann Marlowe, John Marlowe.