Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (Music); Tim Rice (Lyrics)

The Cast of "Chess"
Produced first as a concept album in 1984 with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (both formerly with ABBA and later to be associated with the mega hit Mamma Mia) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), Chess is a musical that has historically been re-shaped in song and story sequence, settings, and stagings for literally every production since its London debut in 1986.  Usually sung with little-to-no dialogue, the musical is chocked full of rapidly exploding lyrics as well as breath-taking moments of reflection sung by both soloists and full ensemble.  Gorgeous but difficult duets, trios, and quartets sometimes blend as one in harmony and other times separate into counter melodies of simultaneously delivered monologues. 

Rarely undertaken due to its complexities and difficulties, when it is produced, Chess usually fills large stages in big arenas.  Custom Made Theatre Company has made the daring choice to open its 2016/17 season on its small (one might even say cramped) stage with the world’s latest version of Chess in a production that soars, zings, and pops with a caliber whose delivered brilliance far exceeds the size of the venue.

The Ensemble of "Chess"
In smart black and white outfits that match the various likened-colored squares on stacked stage levels and walls, an ensemble of townspeople set a high standard of musical and choreographic excellence they as a chorus will continue to meet and exceed for the next two acts.  In their opening number, “Merano,” they buzz in close harmonies about their excitement of the upcoming 1986 world championship tournament that is taking place in their small, town in the Italian Alps -- a Cold War showdown that is the subject of the musical Chess.  As the many scenes progress, these six repeatedly re-appear as demanding reporters (“Press Conference”), paper-pushing government bureaucrats (“Embassy Lament”), street seekers of sex and sin in Bangkok (“One Night in Bangkok”), and general narrators of the story.  Each time the three men and three women emerge, they only impress more with their outstanding voices, sophisticated moves, and expressions that speak volumes to support the exacting, always understandable lyrics that they project often with bullet speeds.  As inventively directed by Brian Katz and choreographed by Daunielle Rausmussen, Katie Francis, Toni Lynn Guidry, Paul Hogarth, Rowan Rivers, Gabrielle Traub, and Ted Zoldan deserve standing ovation kudos for being the backbone that holds together this exciting, tantalizing production.

The story is one similar to actual newlines of the ‘80s when tournaments of chess and the headlines they generated led to much larger fonts and front-page coverage due to the chilled, dangerous relationship (or lack thereof) between the USA and the USSR.  In this fictional reflection of those times, rwo grandmasters, American Freddy Trumper and Soviet Anatoly Sergievsky, vie not only for who will claim the final checkmate and world championship but who will also claim the same woman they both love.  Egos that inflate to the brink of popping, dirty deals made between opposing government agents, and an abandoned wife and kids behind the Iron Curtain further increase the intrigue of a story that is already filled with the palpable tension of what will be the next move on the black and white game board.  Not just an interesting piece of yesteryear geopolitics, Custom’s current Chess cannot help but remind its audience of the mounting and troubling Russian/American conflicts once again brewing in 2016.

Leah Shesky & Chris Uzelac
As Anatoly, Chris Uzelac rises to the top of the overall accomplished set of principals with an operatic-quality voice that is deep in richness and tonal purity.  In numbers like “Mountain Duet,” he trumpets his part with full confidence while jumping the difficult leaps of scale the composers have forced upon him.  His beautiful baritone is haunting when as a defector from his motherland, he delivers “Anthem.”  Climbing at a measured pace to triumphant heights, he sings, “Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart, my land’s only borders lie around my heart” (all to the tune of the majestic national anthem of the then USSR).

Less successful in his sung vocals than his counterpart across the board of squares, Mische Stephens as Freddy Trumper, does bring a captivating ability totally to sell the ego-centric, caustic, but chess-devoted persona of the American competitor.  In character with Freddy’s personality, he aggressively attacks the notes and lyrics of numbers like “Who’d Ever Think It?”  He brings an emotional, quivering edge to his childhood reminiscing in “Pity the Child.”  What Mr. Stephens lacks in both cases is the needed power of voice volume as well as the range to hit the required upper notes without strain.  But even so, he never fails to register Freddy’s angst, anger, and shifts of attitude.

Mische Stephens & Leah Shesky
Smack dab in between the two opponents lands Florence Vassy, tournament second and sometime lover of Freddy who soon falls in love with the mysterious and sexy Anatoly.  Leah Shesky as Florence is no-nonsense in her management of Freddy and in her willingness to switch loyalties.  Her voice rings with direct, no-holes-barred intensity as she sings “Nobody’s Side,” echoes with passion and an edge of mystery in her half of “Mountain Duet” with Anatoly, and conveys the underlying emotion of deep self-reflection in “Heaven Help My Heart.”  There is a slight nasal quality to Ms. Shesky’s delivery that somehow works in underlining her authenticity of feelings while not always producing quite the vocal quality the song is seeking.

Heather Orth
A total standout of the entire production is the second half appearance of Anatoly’s abandoned wife, Svetlana, as played by Heather Orth.  When Svetlana sings “Someone Else’s Story,” the low, creeping tones seep in to touch one’s soul as she recounts how “long ago in someone else’s lifetime, someone with my name who looked a lot like me” fell in love with he who now has not left her behind for a new, younger version.  As her voice grows in reverberating volume, the audience is clearly moved and then awards her with the night’s loudest, longest accolades.

Soviet-born Molokov (Martin Bell) and American-born Walter (Stuart Bousel) attempt to move the pieces on the board to pull off deals that meet each side’s objectives, even if it means trying to force Anatoly to throw a second championship match to an unproved protégé on Molokov’s.  Each brings a fine voice that works to reveal the seediness of their dealings and their characters. 

Showing up as a talk-show star among the chess stars is a wide-smiling, appropriately obnoxious TV hostess played by Juliana Lustenader.  Her bright soprano shoots forth her sung questions and commentary with a force that stays true to pitch in its powerful punch.
Alan Coyne & Ensemble

Not as successful in sung delivery is the Arbiter, a quirky, shifty-eyed Alan Coyne who plays a wonderful character but sings with a too-shallow voice.  However, when backed by an ensemble lifting heavy rule books while dancing in drill lines of snazzy steps in precision formations, Mr. Coyne uses his just-OK voice to great and winning effect in “The Arbiter.”

Armando Fox, as Musical Director, leads a four-person band tucked in full sight in a corner of the intimate stage; and the result is as near perfection as could be dreamed.  Never is any one of the un-miked singers over-powered by the instruments; and often the band is able to co-star in ways that totally enhance and not just accompany the singers themselves.

Brooke Jennings has outdone herself in designing costumes that reflect the chess color scheme of black and white, the 1980s time period, and the various international settings the story takes place.  Austin Kottkamp’s scenic design reminds us of the chessboard without totally duplicating it.  On opening night, the execution of Maxx Kursunski’s otherwise well-planned lighting design faltered much too often, leaving soloists in the dark or only partially lit.  Hopefully, those mistakes have long since been corrected.

While Custom Made Theatre Company’s Chess is not quite flawless, the production comes close enough across the musical, directorial, acting, and creative categories to gain a “must-see” recommendation from this reviewer.  Rare is the opportunity to see a fully staged version of Chess; and probably, in the tradition of the musical, this is the only time this exact version will ever be staged.  So grab a ticket before closing; and go see what will surely be a unique, fascinating, and even surprising evening of quality, musical theatre.

Rating: 5 E

Chess will continue through October 15 in production by Custom Made Theatre Company at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

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