Regional Reviews: Chicago
The staging is set more or less on the diagonal of a black box theater, with most of the audience on risers toward the rear of the space and a dozen cafe tables up close to the double row of risers for the musicians and actors. Small touches including the expected American and Soviet flags on upstage walls are complemented by desk set flags on the cafe tables.
All of the American characters, including the ensemble members, who largely keep to stage right, have blue touches in their costumes. The Russians have more rigidly formal costumes that are primarily black with red touches. The blue/red theme is repeated in the lights that appear as each player taps his side of the chess timer during the matches. Together, these visuals are enough to keep the story clear without overcomplicating things in the concert setting.
Both the direction by Jeffrey Cass (also BrightSide's artistic director) and music direction (Aaron Zimmerman, who also conducts and plays keys) are solid. In particular, there is more dramatic oomph to carry the spoken dialogue (of which there is considerably more in this, the American version, compared with the concept album and the original West End version) than one might expect. Cass also divvies up smaller roles to a variety of ensemble members, all of whom do quite well.
There are the occasional musical hiccups that one might expect in tight venue with challenging sight lines and acoustics, but these are relatively minor. Moreover, the genuine enthusiasm and passion, as well as the overall high quality of the singers and musicians keeps things reliably enjoyable.
The three leads, Julie Ann Kornak (Florence), Justin Miller (Anatoly), and Michael Metcalf (Freddie), are strong singers and charismatic actors. In a few instances, Kornak may have struggled slightly with some of Florence's protracted lower register passages (which do get very low), but her voice is both strong and lovely on the whole and her performance appropriately takes charge of the story.
Metcalf has no fear of inhabiting every detestable inch of Freddie's character. His smarm fills the room and his singing is impeccable. The same is true of Miller's mellow, powerful voice and much more reserved acting style. The two performances complement one another very well and they each have good chemistry with Kornak.
In supporting roles, Edward MacLennan is delightfully corrupt as Molokov, Zach Gibson is excellent as the Arbiter, and Meg McGarry does a wonderful job both vocally and dramatically as Svetlana.
Chess runs through February 18, 2024, at North Central College, Madden Theatre, 171 Chicago Avenue, Naperville IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.brightsidetheatre.com or call 630-447-8497.