By Bill Hirschman
All’s fair in love and war, and in the musical Chess, there’s little difference. Partners and politicians swirl in ever-morphing, ever more Byzantine configurations powered by one bitterly cynical truism – human feelings are a weakness to be exploited in an existentially meaningless pursuit for dominance.
So, not Disney’s Aladdin. But Slow Burn Theatre Company has once again tackled a difficult show that few if any Florida companies would attempt. And once again, it has come out the victor, at least as victorious as any production can be of this work that divides audiences.
Unstinting praise is due Slow Burn director and co-founder Patrick Fitzwater, musical director Manny Schvartzman and a stunningly fine cast for pulling off an evening that had Saturday’s audience cheering in the middle of the show. Some of the renditions surpass any recording or video we’ve heard or seen of these numbers.
The sung-through score has been called a rock opera, but that gives it short shrift. The difficult charts encompass powerplant ballads, pop songs, production numbers, operatically nimble recitatives, intricate chorale pieces and herky-jerky melody lines and rhyming schemes, when it deigns to rhyme at all.
Making it even more difficult is that the subject matter – cerebral and political power games – is not inherently visual and requires a great deal of imagination in its staging.
All of this, again, means that many people are not full-throated fans of the work, although nearly everyone admits that some numbers are thrilling and that the underlying concept is intriguing – just not enough to fill out an entire evening.
The plot may be a tad hard to follow and while the cast mostly does a fair job enunciating the crucial lyrics, Slow Burn has wisely inserted a synopsis in the playbill. Chess newcomers would do well to spend a minute scanning it before the lights go down.
At its core is a world chess championship match in the early 1980s between the arrogant grandmaster cum rock star Freddie (Rick Peña) and the more sedate Russian challenger Anatoly (Matthew Korinko). Freddie’s handler and lover Florence (Amy Miller Brennan) is a Hungarian émigré who lost her father during the Russians’ 1956 invasion that deepened the Cold War several degrees. No current resonance there, right?
The contest has major political and commercial stakes, so the match overseen by The Arbiter (Conor Walton) is being observed and manipulated by Russian diplomat Molokov (Elvin Negron) and American television entrepreneur Walter (Sean Dorazio). After Anatoly falls for Florence and defects, Molokov puts Anatoly’s Queen and Florence’s Knight into play: the wife Anatoly left behind in Russia, Svetlana (Carla Bordonada), and Florence’s father, who may or may not still be alive in prison.
Chess has been written and perpetually rewritten since Evita lyricist Tim Rice saw a theatrically promising analogy between the Cold War, then still raging, and the take-no-prisoners world of grandmaster chess, which had taken on geo-political and commercial ramifications. Working with composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, late of ABBA (not a shred of Mamma Mia here, thank goodness), they wrote a concept album that broke out in 1984 as a hit on the British charts and produced several music videos.
Two years later, an expanded version bowed on the West End with Trevor Nunn taking over direction from an ailing Michael Bennett. Two years later, a drastically revised version with a book by Richard Nelson (later to write the Apple family plays) played Broadway with disappointing results. Since then, there have been approximately 30 revivals, tours and concert versions, most of which have received similar mixed reviews regardless of frequent renovations.
Fitzwater, as always doing double duty as director and choreographer, once again brings a choreographer’s visual bent to his staging with as highly stylized a tone as Slow Burn has ever attempted. Sometimes his characters stand stock still like chess pieces when they sing their ballads. But usually he creates stage pictures filled with kinetic movement for the copious group numbers.
Acknowledging the wide levels of ability among his ensemble, much of his choreography is about movement not traditional Broadway dance steps – at one point the ensemble twirl banners like a high school marching corps. Only when the dancers physicalize the crucial chess matches occurring upstage are they challenged to pull off modern dance moves and in the case of two principal dancers, classic ballet masquerading as warfare.
We’ve delayed spotlighting the ultimate strengths of the production: Brennan, Korinko, Peña and Bordonada.
The pure polished soprano issuing forth from the equally lovely Brennan stops respiration. Fresh off her comic turn in Actors Playhouse’s Ruthless and crooning standards in Tony Finstrom’s Glamour Girl, Brennan emerges clearly as a reliable reason to see any show she’s cast in. She has a cabaret singer’s vocal agility and a stage actress’ passionate expressiveness. Her performance of the angry “Nobody’s Side” and anguished “Heaven Help My Heart” are unparalleled.
Korinko, co-founder of the company, brings a quiet dignity to Anatoly – perhaps the only decent character on stage. But it’s his powerful and clean light baritone that overwhelms his scenes, including the Act I closer “Anthem” that is as moving a rendering as I’ve ever heard of it. No asterisks.
Peña, also a veteran of the company since day one, has proved his mettle in many roles, but here he completely inhabits the brilliant, manipulative and abrasive Freddie. His tenor has never been stronger whether in the hedonistic “One Night In Bangkok” or sensitively exposing the damage of his broken childhood in “Pity The Child.”
Bordonada, recently seen in the local revival of Respect, has a strong piano bar/cabaret background that’s put to good use in Svetlana’s power ballad “Someone Else Story.” And when she and Brennan team up for the 11 o’ clock number “I Know Him So Well,” it’s a perfect storm of passion, power and talent.
Props are due the eight-member ensemble who work overtime whether it’s carrying out Fitzwater’s movement or nailing the complex choral numbers for Schvartzman. A bow is due Ann Marie Olson, Kaela Antolino, Kaitlyn O’Neill, Spencer Perlman, Bruno Vida, Elijah Davis, and primary dancers Jamie Kautzmann and Hugo Moreno who execute the pas de deux ballet moves as the chess matches rage behind them.
Slow Burn has evolved into a kind of repertory group like Steppenwolf with a core of regular performers who selflessly slip in and out of lead roles and the ensemble. For instance, Olson who sings and dances with fiery passion this time was the standout as the wife in Slow Burn’s last production, Parade; Antolino was one of the twins in the triumphant Side Show, and Vida is nominated for a Carbonell next week for next to normal.
Sean McClelland’s set design and Lance Blank’s lighting use videos and projections to enhance the chess motif from the 64-square board for the dancers to perform upon to the oversized time clocks to building block squares painted in marbled texture. The only glitch is that the echoing floor of the stage make the moving of the blocks sound like a herd of elephants has gotten loose.
Peña doubles as the resident costume designer and his work is as hard-edged and sexy as the show itself including a lot of leather bar outfits with bare-chested men wearing sleek vests and the women wearing dresses that are low-cut and high-hemmed.
Schvartzman, who molded and melded the cast’s musical performances, also leads the fine band which relies heavily on a synthesizer. The only audible problem was during the instrumental accompaniment of the first chess match as the dancers clash on stage. The quality of the sound om that number was noticeably muted and anemic. A lucky guess would be that the number was pre-recorded.
Many fans of the show acknowledge that something indefinable has eluded every iteration of the raw material no matter how many times it has been reshaped and rewritten. Certainly, its acerbic cynicism and fatalistic outlook haven’t enchanted traditional audiences. And for those who love it primarily through its various recordings, on stage it seems a long show – oddly feeling longer than book musicals like The King and I up at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, which is actually longer on the clock.
Slow Burn now in its fifth season just keeps growing in quality and polish, but never deviates from its ambition to mount challenging musical theater. They must be doing something right; more than 370 people were in the audience Saturday night for a show most of them had not seen before or even heard of. Chess is another reason for the company to be proud.
Note: If the trip to Slow Burn’s home on the edge of the Everglades in Boca Raton is too daunting, the company will mount a fourth week at the Aventura Cultural & Arts Center the weekend of April 10-13.
Chess by Slow Burn Theatre, performing through April 5 at West Boca Performing Arts Theatre inside the West Boca Community High School, 12811 West Glades Road, and from April 10-13 at Aventura Arts & Culture Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes including one intermission. Tickets are students $25, seniors $35, adults $40 in Boca Raton, $34.50-$39.50 in Aventura. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit slowburntheatre.org.