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Chicago by John Olson

Chess
Theo Ubique

Chess
Jeremy Trager, John B. Leen, Maggie Portman and Courtney Crouse
Like Sondheim and Furth's Merrily We Roll Along, this rock musical is a show on which its creators and many fans won't give up. Its revered score, with music by ABBA singer-songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice, is much loved by those who have bought any of its six recordings. Audiences in the Midwest are most likely to know it from those recordings, unless they were lucky enough to catch the 2003 one-night benefit concert in New York or if they saw the PBS telecast of the concert performance at London's Royal Albert Hall. The show hadn't been produced professionally in Chicago since 1990. With Theo Ubique's production now playing at the No Exit Café, fans and musical theater enthusiasts alike can be treated to a first-rate performance of the score and at the same time see the book problems that made it an unexpected flop when it ran on Broadway in 1988.

Above all, one has to admire the ambition and hard-edged honesty of the piece. The story, concerning two world-chess players and a woman involved with each of them, can be seen as an allegory about life choices. Its view of society as a generally hostile environment is a dark and challenging theme for a musical. Though the rock-opera score is starting to sound a little dated and '80s, it's an arguably better score than some of the music that came from the masters of that genre, Lloyd-Webber and Boublil and Schoenberg. It's rich and complex, with musicalized scenes as well as pop power ballads and a unified tone that underscores the intentions of the piece.

This 11-person cast is consistently strong (and in the intimacy of the No Exit, you can judge the contributions of each). In the leads are some of the best voices currently working in Chicago musical theater, Equity or not. As the American chess player, the temperamental Freddie, Courtney Crouse's distinctive pop/Broadway style is perfect for the material. Florence, his "second" (in chess, a person who may serve as a player representative, trainer or analyst) is played by Maggie Portman, who won a Jeff award last year for the title role in Theo Ubique's Evita. Her vocals here are soulful and powerful. She's well-matched by Stephanie Herman in the show's greatest hit, the duet "I Know Him So Well" (currently enjoying renewed attention thanks to a performance of it currently popular on YouTube by Elaine Paige, the original Florence, and Susan Boyle). As the Russian player with whom Florence becomes romantically involved, Jeremy Trager still surprises with his amazingly powerful voice. John Taflan handles "The Arbiter's Song" in similarly full, rich voice as well. The five-piece band of keyboard, drums, guitar, violin and flute led by Music Director Ryan Brewster provides a full and satisfying accompaniment to the vocals as well as underscoring for the action.

As directed by Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier, and choreographed by Didier, the cast moves sleekly across the set designed by Nate Crawford that suggests five-star hotels in Bangkok and Budapest. Didier's smart dance moves for "One Night in Bangkok" and the other production numbers are precisely executed by the cast. All in all, Didier and Anzevino give their Chess a darkly stylish tone that is well-executed throughout. Bill Morey's costumes garb the cast in blacks and white to underscore the theme of opposing sides. Brian Hoehne's lighting gives added theatricality to the basically non-theatrical space of the No Exit. Dialects, coached by Eva Breneman, sounded authentic enough to this non-Russian speaker.

When Chess was produced on Broadway after a successful run in London, it opened to surprisingly negative reviews which were primarily critical of the new book provided by the American playwright Richard Nelson. Though the book has been revised several times since, only Nelson's script can be licensed for production, so the Theo Ubique team is stuck with it here. The storyline is clear enough. Freddie's second, Florence, leaves Freddie's team after falling in love with his opponent, the Russian Anatoly. At the close of the first act, Anatoly defects to the U.S. to be with her, and the aftermath of that decision comprises the action of act two. Yet, Nelson offers little detail on any of the major characters to really convince us they would make the life-altering decisions we witness. Florence's relationship to Freddie is unclear. Strictly professional? Underlying sexual tension? We're not really sure. Anatoly seems straightforward enough, but what attracts him to Florence? Or Florence to Anatoly? Freddie is shown simply as a selfish bad boy, and is sort of fun to watch on that basis. His antics give Crouse something to play, which is an advantage Portman and Trager don't get from Nelson's script. Still, there's no reason to care much about Freddie—his second act character-defining song "Pity the Child" comes too late to help—and Freddie seems more of a supporting part than the lead it's meant to be. Freddie's duplicitous agent and Anatoly's second, the loyal Communist Molokov are fairly cardboard roles, though handled competently by Anthony Apodoca and John B. Leen.

Though Nelson gives lip service to the softening of communist hardliners by 1988, when the story is set (and the year this script was performed on Broadway), he doesn't solve the problem that the action within his story—involving oppressive tactics by the totalitarian USSR—is more likely to have happened in earlier times. What was the point of Anatoly's defection just as his society was loosening emigration laws? And as a world-class chess player wasn't he mostly on the road anyway? It seems these inconsistencies shouldn't be so hard to fix, and we can hope a rumored Broadway revival will include a new book that can finally wrap a coherent and compelling story around the intriguing score. In the meantime, Theo Ubique's musical and dancing skills are reason enough to see the piece fully staged.

Chess will be performed at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood, Chicago, through April 25, 2010. Ticket prices are $25 for Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays and $30 for Saturdays. A show/dinner package is optional for $45 and $50. Tickets available online at www.theoubique.org or through the ticket order line at 800-595-4849. Theo Ubique's ticket information line is 773-347-1109, where updated theatre and show information are available. Free parking is available at the parking lot on the corner of Morse and Ravenswood with free transport on the Lifeline shuttle van to and from the lot.


Photo: Johnny Knight

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-- John Olson



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