REVIEW: Chess (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Chess – an ’80s period piece

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Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents

Chess

 Book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice
music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Directed by
Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier
Musical direction by Ryan Brewster
At
No Exit Cafe, Rogers Park
Through April 25
(more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Where you’re seated in a theater often has a big impact on your perception of a show. If, as I did at opening night at Theo Ubique’s Chess, you sit far to one side of the stage, 3 feet from the amps, with a post blocking your view, you’re apt to enjoy the production rather less than if you get to sit at a front-and-center table specially reserved for you.

IMG_0580It’s rare that a 60-seat house has terrible seats, but this one does. The cramped cabaret set-up of No Exit Cafe assures that some people at the back will have heads blocking their view of the stage. Other lucky patrons must perch on barstools throughout the performance. As there are no reserved seats for anyone short of the critic from the Chicago Tribune, plan to arrive very early for a choice of decent views, and if you want to be assured of a table, book the pre-show dinner package for $20 above the $25 ticket price.

Directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier have done the best job possible in blocking the show against the handicaps of their setting, and the cast offers some first-rate performances, but from my seat this deeply flawed, overlong and dated musical perhaps seemed exceptionally askew.

A largely unmemorable mishmash of Hungarian folk music, cheesy pop, dirgelike anthems, country-style ballads and ABBA-esque tunes by that band’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyricist Tim Rice, the score originated as a concept album in 1984. Ryan Brewster‘s five-piece band and most of the singers do it full justice, but the musical style, like the Cold War plot, seems stale.

IMG_0654 If you’ve heard of one of the songs, it’s likely to be the maudlin love song “I Know Him So Well,” which was covered by Barbra Streisand, Whitney and Cissy Houston, and most recently by Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon Susan Boyle in a TV duet with Elaine Paige, who sang it on the original concept album and in the 1986 West End production.

Produced, to mixed reception, as a largely sung-through musical on the London stage, Chess was reworked, with a new book by Richard Nelson, for Broadway. Theo Ubique uses Nelson’s script, which was supposedly made nicer to Americans and added narrative and dialogue. The West End version played three years; the New York show folded after 68 performances in 1988, shortly before the Berlin Wall fell.

The 1972 World Chess Championship match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky inspired this study in black and white, which seems less like the three-dimensional chessboard than the flat cartoon Spy vs. Spy.

We have the pure Russian chess champ, Anatoly, seeking freedom and love, and ultimately sacrificing them. The Ugly American challenger, Freddie, selfish and vain. Naive Florence, the Hungarian-refugee chess coach who fickly wavers between them, a smart woman who behaves stupidly for love. Stoic Svetlana, Anatoly’s deserted wife, seeking to regain her loveless marriage (or is it merely their revoked apartment?). The tricky Russian spy. His callous and conniving American counterpart. There are no likeable characters here.

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Jeremy Trager’s Anatoly comes closest to being a real human being, with a beautiful voice to boot. As Florence, Maggie Portman brings a soulful country-western musical style and a bouncy stage presence befitting her role’s up-and-down character.

The rest are pretty much comic-book figures, though Jon B. Leen offers some subtlety and a fine voice as Anatoly’s minder, Molokov. Stephanie Herman captures cool Russian beauty as Svetlana. Courtney Crouse, as Freddie, acts the jerk well but has some problems with pitch and volume; his vocals are often swallowed by the band. Anthony Apodaca and John Taflan ham it up as Freddie’s “agent,” Walter, and the tournament Arbiter, who somehow manages to do his job without the aid of a chess clock.

The production has loads of talent, but not enough to bring this musty musical into the present. Those who sit staunchly among ABBA fans and ’80s nostalgia buffs will probably enjoy Chess more than others

Rating: ★★½

 

NOTE: Allow time to find parking. For some performances, theater patrons may use the lot at Christian Mission Elim, 1615 W. Morse Ave.

All photos by Johnny Knight

Review: Theo Ubique’s “Man of La Mancha”

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Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents:

Man of La Mancha

Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by David Heimann
Music Directed by Ethan Deppe
Thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

lamancha21 With a plunger for a sword and a bowl for a helmet, Cervantes proclaims he is the knight, Don Quixote. Sounds crazy? Set in a mental institution, the asylum’s newest inmate, Cervantes, must convince a jury of his peers that he is not crazy. Man of La Mancha, then, is a play within a play. Don Quixote tells his tale of slaying dragons (windmills), storming castles (the local inn) and rescuing a lady in distress (the local whore) to prove his identity. From the playwright  (Dale Wasserman), who penned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the man (and No Exit Café owner Michael James), whose father first produced the 1965 Broadway version, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents this musical featuring a woman as the Man of La Mancha.

Instead of going in a Victor/Victoria direction – a  woman believing she is a man believing she’s a different man – this production of Man of La Mancha introduces Danielle Brothers (Cervantes/Don Quixote) as simply a man. Brothers does an excellent job of sustaining that illusion. With a formal elocution, she portrays a man of chivalry and honor from days gone by. There are only sporadic moments of …oh right, Brothers is a woman… during some of the songs. Singing in a range not her norm, Brothers hits the notes but loses a little power on the projection. This is most apparent when she is singing with her sidekick Sancho (Anthony John Lawrence Apodaca). Accompanied by a live orchestra, the cast’s amazing singing leads to involuntary shoulder dancing and humming. “To Dream the Impossible Dream” prompts hope and empowerment within a crazy world. This light hearted musical energy is briefly interrupted with “The Abduction” song. More precise, “The Rape” song is a little startlingly dramatic to the overall enjoyment of crazy people’s antics.

lamancha1 Bringing back dinner theatre, Theo Ubique provides a dinner option for an additional $23. But don’t go for the food! Salad, frittata, and banana bread isn’t a bad three course meal. It’s just not a great one. Go for the opportunity to experience the actors already in character on stage and serving the meal. Apodaca is our repeat server (also served us in the company’s Jeff Award-winning Evita). Apodaca warns us to keep an eye on our silverware around the inmates. During the dinner hour, it’s fascinating to observe the interpretations of insanity. Daniel Waters (Padre) was particularly intriguing (I want to say creepy but that doesn’t sound politically correct) as he sat on the stage rocking. Go crazy and over tip! Chicago actors as servers is one of my favorite charities to support.

 

Rating: «««

 

Aside: The man who is perfectly at home in any asylum, Dick describes the show as crazy, romantic and cool.

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