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

Think Fast: Susan Boyle, Paula Abdul and a crazy wedding

Boyle-new-look

  • Look out America: Susan Boyle, the “Britain’s Got Talent” phenomenon, is coming to America on a media blitz, replete with a new look. (photo courtesy of CNN)
  • Horrors of horrors – Paula Abdul may be leavingAmerican Lame Idol”.
  • Yes it’s true: Kelly Hildebrandt just married Kelly Hildebrandt – couple with exactly the same name tie the knot!!   Ahhhhhh…..
hildebrandts 

Random Thoughts – Dungeons and Dragons, Frumpy Singers, Hungry Polar Bears – Oh My!

  • Looks like there’s a designer catfight regarding Michelle Obama’s wardrobe.  Watch out for the flying stilettos!!

Boyle

  • Take a middle-aged frumpy matron, put her on “Britain’s Got Talent”, have her sing “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miz, and you get an amazing and touching performance guaranteed to make you smile and maybe even shed a joyful tear.  
  • Dungeons and Dragons – I have no idea how to play it, but – judging from the intensity I have seen at coffee houses from the role-playing game’s fans – it is worth noting that the co-creator of the game, Dave Arneson, has died at the tender age of 61.  What better way to live your life than to bring fun to millions of D&D enthusiasts.
  • Where do you find a course dedicated to teaching one how to create a viral video?  At Northwestern, it seems: YouTubing 101.   How fun is that?  (so, do they let people sit in???)

A beautifully imperfect love: