SALT LAKE CITY — “It’s the US versus the USSR” both in the world championship chess match and in the Cold War as Grandmasters Freddie Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky meet in Merano, Italy. With far more at stake than just a title, each player finds himself simultaneously juggling a love triangle, a web of politics, and the demons that drove him to the game in the first place. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the latter two of ABBA), the score has gathered a cult following since its original debut over thirty years ago. Interestingly, Tim Rice openly recognizes that despite having both a West End and Broadway version with book by Richard Nelson, Chess was never presented in a way that quite worked. He has invited directors to examine the material and develop their own take. Local director and choreographer Denny Berry accepted that challenge and brought Chess to the department’s stage.
The set design by Halee Rasmussen lifted the actors onto a tilted chessboard which, at first glance, set my expectations for choreography quite low. I was immediately forced to raise those expectations when the company took to the stage and presented “The Story of Chess.” It became clear that Berry’s cast was well acclimated to the incline, and that I was in for a night of stellar dancing. Lighting design by Cole Adams enhanced the visual display as bright beams of red and white circled and crossed to give the production numbers a rock-concert feel. A personal favorite was “Embassy Lament,” in which the dancing clowns were not only a delightful political jibe but also some of the best storytelling I have seen in a while. Unfortunately, the show’s most well known production number “One Night in Bangkok” failed to deliver the same energy and polish.
Having fallen in love with an overplayed copy of the concept album almost twenty years ago, I was drawn primarily to the music in this production. Under the supervision of Alex Marshall, on-stage actors, pit singers, and a live orchestra combined to skillfully execute the challenging score. Chess is full of songs that provide plenty of opportunities to showcase powerful soloists, such as “Anthem,” “Pity the Child,” and “I Know Him So Well.” Male leads Derek DuBay (playing Freddie Trumper) and Patrick Ryan Castle (playing Anatoly Sergievsky) each excelled in his vocal role in a different manner. DuBay attacked his songs with a rock edge and a seemingly effortless high tenor. Castle, on the other hand, had a more traditional musical theater voice which he backed with a strong emotional connection to his numbers. In the role of Florence Vassy, Barbara Camara was able to project countermelodies that cut through ensemble and leading voices alike. However, an overall brightness in her tone betrayed her youth, and neither she nor Micki Martinez (in the role of Svetlana Sergievskaya) had the rich alto notes required for “I Know Him So Well.”
As I consider the minor shortcomings of both the production and its actors, I am reminded of a line from the show, “The game is greater than its players.” Although I took notes about microphones that didn’t work, dizzying blocking for Florence that had her moving nearly the entire show, and questions left unanswered by a still-imperfect script, the production as a whole made a strong impact. The diction of each company member was impeccable, an absolutely necessary component in an exposition-heavy show. I also appreciated the consistent commitment to storytelling, especially by those company members without lines or in scenes where a chess match played out. The interaction of the characters on stage lent an intensity to these quiet moments that drew me in not only to the show, but to the outcome of each game. Interestingly, the flip side of having a production strong enough to overshadow its own weaknesses is that standout performers such as Chase Quinn as the Arbiter, whose confidence in go-go boots left nothing wanting, also pale in comparison to the general impact of the production.
For arguably good reason, this production is rarely performed in its entirety, and Utah audiences have few opportunities to attend Chess. If you can find time in your schedule this week, make seeing the University of Utah’s production of Chess a priority. Depending on which performance you attend, you may alternately have an opportunity to see Mary Nikols in the role of Florence and Cam Holzman as Anatoly Sergievsky, as these roles are double-cast. Additionally, the company posted a “mature language” warning outside the performance hall, so audiences should take that into consideration before bringing children to this production.