Monday, May 03, 2010


Game of ‘CHESS’ played out by BW students at 14th Street Theatre

For the last several years Baldwin Wallace College and Playhouse Square have combined to give us such shows as ‘BROOKLYN THE MUSICAL’ and ‘title of show.’ This year they showcased ‘CHESS, the London Stage Version.’ The staging, which ran just three productions in the 14th Street Theatre was, in the tradition of this series, excellent. It’s a shame that it wasn’t scheduled for a longer run, as it would have provided a chance for more people to see the show.

The BW/PHSquare collaboration gives the music theatre students an opportunity to showcase their talents in a professional theatre, and the arts management majors an opportunity to hone their skills while working with the PHSquare staff. It also provides audiences with a chance to gain an appreciation of the performance skills of a group from one of the most respected musical theatre programs in the country.

‘CHESS,’ with lyrics by Tim Rice, and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA, concerns a series of matches between American and Russian chess champions. The matches mirror the Reagan-era Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, the major military powers of the time. Although the protagonists in the story were not supposedly representing any specific individuals, the character of the American seems loosely based on chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, while elements of the story may have been inspired by the chess careers of several Russian grandmasters.
The first theatrical production of ‘CHESS’ opened in London's West End in 1986 and played for three years. A much-altered US version premièred on Broadway in 1988, but survived only two months. Recently, a concert form was staged in London, which is the basis for the recent local production.

This is not a musical in the format of ‘MY FAIR LADY’ or ‘WEST SIDE STORY.’ There are no show stoppers and the visual elements are restricted. As reviews from the show’s short lived Broadway production stated, “It is far too long" and "it is a shallow, improbable story masquerading as a serious musical."

In spite of those observations, ‘CHESS,’ at least in the BW production, was well worth the sit time.

In watching this, and previous BW 14th Street productions, one always has to be amazed at the talent and presence of these barely twenty year olds. They are amateurs who, in many cases, perform as professionals.

The staging by director Victoria Bussert is functional. It is the dance and movement, as conceived by Anna Maria D’Antonio and Martin Céspedes ,that provides visual impact. Working on a postage-sized stage, with a fairly large cast, the duo has developed chess moves into dance steps that help make this more than a staged concert.

The show was dual-cast. I saw the “American” cast, so my comments will be limited to those performers.

Hilare C. Smith gave a strong Russian presence to her well sung and acted performance of Svetlana, the wife of Anatoly, the Russian champion. Theresa Kloos displayed excellent vocal prowess as Florence, who was romantically connected to both players. Some of her character development needed honing. Corey Mach’s Anatoly was sincere and sensitive. Mach has a fine singing voice and good stage presence. Danny Henning, he of impish face, dynamic personality and nice singing voice, may have been a little too playful as Freddie. There was more Pippin here than American grandmaster.

Arthur Wise was strong as Molokov, the prototype Russian wheeler-dealer, but why was he the only one with an accent?

Maggie Roach, as the American Chess Queen and Natalia Lepore Hagan, as the Russian Queen, both displayed some nice dance techniques.

The musicians played their instruments well. However, why, oh why, can’t musicians realize that when they play as support, note the word support for a musical, they are not the center of attention. This is not a rock concert. If, as happened in ‘CHESS,’ the musical director, in this case Ryan Garrett, doesn’t reign in the drums and guitars, the audience can’t hear the singers. Small space, hard surfaces, singers needing to be heard! “Cool it!”

Capsule judgement: ‘CHESS The London Stage Version’ was an excellent experience, both for the audience and the performers. Maybe the next time around BW and PHSq will extend the run of the show so that more people can get an opportunity to experience the talents of these students!