BWW Review: With Pinpoint Scrutiny, a Wonderful-to-Watch, Game-Changing CHESS by University of Utah Theatre Department

BWW Review: With Pinpoint Scrutiny, a Wonderful-to-Watch, Game-Changing CHESS by University of Utah Theatre DepartmentTim Rice welcomes the re-imagining of CHESS, and uniquely encourages it. The lyricist has said he knows the musical that premiered in 1986 on the West End is problem-plagued. Continues to refer to CHESS as a work in progress, he suggests exploration and and alterations.

This advice gift-wraps Director Denny Berry a platinum AmEx. It's clear from her staging with students at the University of Utah Theatre Department that she, and her students, had Christmas-morning fun. CHESS is spectacular.

Rice's idea was to discuss the intertwining of politics and passion. Two years following the winning three-year London run as it opened on Broadway, CHESS seemed like a sure thing. The creative team made improvements, and arguably the poppiest of pop songs, "One Night in Bangkok" (written like the rest of the songs by the Bs in ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus), received heavy radio airplay.

The staging was a painful flop. "The original Broadway show was not good, although not as bad as that bloke on the New York Times (critic Frank Rich) stated," Rice told an interviewer. "After zilch at the Tonys, the plug got pulled."

(The New York Post's theater observer/wag, the equally lovable and hateful Michael Riedel, calls the CHESS score "zakhvatyvayushchiy," Russian for terrific; but the script "perepodvypodvert," incomprehensible.)

Enter Berry, with a laudable agenda to encourage students and audiences to enjoy the light years beyond Utah staples "Joseph...Dreamcoat" and "Les Misérables." Roll CHESS out of cold storage and make sense of the madcap mayhem, she seems to have said on the outset. And if a large cast can be assembled, all the better. (And it's delightful to see the Marriott Center for Dance theater's near-capacity audiences at final performances.)

CHESS has been called "a suite of temper tantrums." The primary problem is an overly forced plot; too self-important and ultimately irredeemably contrived. There's a cerebral, not-visual game with two stoic, nearly immobile players at the center, with the storyline that combines a thin, arbitrary love triangle ping-pong that is conjoined with (yes; it's true!) Cold War politics. There are equal numbers of standout songs and outright clunkers.

Berry clarifies plot points, but none of the problems are solved. (Thankfully, she didn't add a narrator, competing with the Arbiter character; an error by "new" book writer Danny Strong, in the recent two and one-half hour Washington D.C. production.)

Yet CHESS is made into a wonder to watch.

As a reference, Rice wrote the lyrics to "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita," along with a little movie-cum-stage-show, "The Lion King." And ABBA is, well, ABBA. (All caps are necessary because the members' first names form an acronym.)

There is perhaps more dancing in this CHESS than in any previous staging. The choreography (by Berry) and costuming (by Brenda Van Der Wiel, cutting no corners) are the stars. Drama is intensified by the strong black, white, red color palette. The blue field of stars in the U.S. flag is the only rule-breaker. Student actors -- and theatergoers -- receive a memorable, unique theater experience. The conceptualization of CHESS is its highlight.

Alongside Music Director Alex Marshall, Berry cuts and pastes, picks and chooses - to better tell the story, with a dual intent to surprise.

CHESS opens with 32 fancifully enrobed dancers, portraying knights, queens, rooks, bishop, knights and pawns, on a large raked stage of 64 black and white squares. Note the lovely backdrop as well (kudos to set designer Halee Rasmussen). The dancers stunningly re-enact the moves of an actual chess match in "The Story of Chess." We know we are in for a treat.

It's a strictly stylized staging, and the actors are given equally enforced encouragement to play their characters. The balls-to-the-wall score challenges the best of the belters (Josh Groban, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel in the recorded Royal Albert Hall concert production; Raúl Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Karen Olivo in the Kennedy Center staging).

Derek DuBay, with Michael Jackson-level moves for "One Night in Bangkok," rocks as the brash John McEnroe-style Freddie Trumper. Cam Holzman embodies Anatoly Sergievsky with gusto and confidence (Berry's greatest achievement is the confidence she has instilled throughout).

And there's the fully realized, exceptional performance as the spurned wife Svetlana Sergievskaya by a dazzling Micki Martinez. Her anguish is palpable and her vocals soar.

Including the offstage, 19-strong chorus, CHESS could be the university's largest stage cast. And there is the seven-piece marginally overelectronicalized, wonderfully sounding orchestra. (Can we banish any musical production without live accompaniment when the budget would clearly indicate its possibility?)

"Everybody's playing the game / But nobody's rules are the same" are two lyrics.

The rules of chess -- the game -- shan't be broken.

CHESS -- this production -- plays a rule-expanding game.

Berry follows CHESS with the masterly "Company" later in the season. Calendar marked.

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From This Author Blair Howell

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