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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Great Concert Version of Chess

Also see Richard's recent review of Saturday Night Fever

The New Conservatory Theatre's second season of concert versions of musicals continues to present excellent concerts and this one is no exception. George Quick has come up with grand voices for the Andersson, Ulvaeus musical score and premium lyrics by Tim Rice. He even throws in a few surprises in the way of several "new" vocal actors.

I have a somewhat limited association with the original British production of Chess since I was involved with the British consortium that put part of money into the production. We thought, " how could it miss in London with ABBA, Tim Rice's lyrics, Elaine Paige, Murray Head and Tommy Korberg in the leads?" Michael Bennett was to be the director but later was forced to bow out because of illness. The musical opened at the Prince Edward theater in April, 1986 to great reviews from the London critics. We had a chance to see the production twice and I loved every minute of it. I could not get the beat of "One Night In Bangkok" or the wonderful songs "Pity the Child", "You and I", "Heaven Help My Heart" and "Anthem" out of my mind. Even the music to the chess games stayed with me. The London production ran three years.

It was announced that the show would transfer to Broadway and it opened at the Imperial Theatre in 1988. We were there for the first night with the American cast consisting of Philip Casnoff, Judy Kuhn, David Carroll and Harry Goz. What we saw was a complete aberration of the British musical.

The opening act was completely changed from Merano, a Tirolean town in Northern Italy to Budapest. Songs were taken out and put in other places. The big choreographed scene of "One Night In Bangkok" suddenly came up in the first act rather then opening in the second act in London. The story in New York had lost its human contact and it became a political thesis. Even the ending was changed. In London it was upbeat while in New York it was a downer.

The New York critics pulverized the show. Frank Rich of The NY Times led the negative reviewers by calling the production "three hours of characters yelling at one another to rock music ... more like stock car racing than chess". After those scathing reviews, Chess played only two months. It was a financial flop.

However since that time, the musical has found a cult following and regional companies in the United States and the UK are still presenting Chess in various forms. Most here take the American version while the British hang on to the London version.

In the current New Conservatory Theatre concert version, Chess becomes a metaphor for romantic rivalries, competitive gamesmanship superpower politics and international intrigues. The pawns in this drama form a seductive and complex love triangle.

Chess is the story of Frederick, an American chess champion; his Soviet counterpart, Anatoly; Anatoly's wife, Svetlana; and the Hungarian born Florence, Frederick's advisor and lover. The chess games take place on stage and are highlighted by an interesting score and lyrics suggesting chess, with its attendant strategies, as a metaphor for life.

George Quick, the director, used the entire dialogue and libretto of the New York production. His direction is bold and courageous.I worried about how this score would sound like with just one piano; I need not have worried since Dave Dobrusky did a superb job with a synchronizer and drum backup by Michael J. Fox. It worked very well.

All of the singers excelled in this performance. Noel Anthony Escobar was outstanding as Anatoly. Mr. Escobar has a searing top register and he was plausibly cast as a thoughtful Russian with a human side rather than a robot of the state. Another surprise were the two women, Corrie Borris as Florence and Brenda Reed as Svetlana. Florence dominated the stage and gave a vocally blazing performance. She was superb in the song "Somebody Else's Story" and in the trio singing "You and I". Brenda Reed held her own in the duet, "I Know Him so Well", and gave a fine performance as Anatoly's abused wife.

Alexander Brose played the obnoxious Freddie Trumper, the American chess player, to the hilt as he insulted everyone in sight. He gave a good account in "Pity the Child". He was excellent in the lower and middle registers but he strained trying to reach those high notes.

Other members of the cast must be mentioned. Gary Wayne Farris, as the Arbiter, gave a good account of himself in the "Quartet". Mr. Farris has been appearing in many musicals in the Bay area and has an excellent voice. Timothy Duffield as Ivan and Matthew Lazzarina as Walter both have admirable voices and handle their parts well. The chorus proved their worth in several numbers.

One criticism that must be addressed is the use of two stand up mikes for Corrie, Alexander and Noel. This is a small 99 seat theater and mikes are not necessary. When Mr. Brose hit the high notes his voice sounded tinny and piercing due to the miking.

I think Chess is one of the great rock operas of the 20th Century. If you've never seen a production and want to hear some wonderful voices, I recommend you get to the New Conservatory Theatre on Van Ness. The production runs through April 29, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets range from $16 to $32 and can be obtained at the box office at 415-861-8972. The last production of the current season will be Forever Plaid.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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