Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Custom Made Theatre Co.
Review by Richard Connema | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Dear Master, Little Shop of Horrors and August: Osage County

Photo by Jay Yamada
The Custom Made Theatre Co. opens its 2016/17 season with an exciting production of Chess. I first saw the musical in 1986 two weeks after it opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in London with Elaine Page, Murray Head, and Tommy Körberg. [I also had invested in that production and made my money back.] I was blown away by the show and played the concept album almost daily. I thought it had a fabulous score. I did not see the revised American production which played in 1988 on Broadway and was panned by the critics, closing after two months. In the 1990s, a small company in Concord did a fine job of presenting the musical.

The Custom Made company is doing a bang-up job of presenting this huge musical on their intimate stage. Stuart Bousel, who plays Walter, and director Brian Katz should be praised for going through every previous version of the show—what they've come up with is stunningly presented. Stuart has included most of the songs from the concept album, one song from the American version, "Someone Else's Story" sung beautifully by Heather Orth as Svetlana, and five songs from the British production.

Chess' storyline involves chess championships on the world stage. The action takes place in 1979 and 1980. It's about Freddie Trumper (Mischa Stephens) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Chris Uzelac) meeting for an international chess match in Merano, Italy. (The musical was inspired by the encounter of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.) The twist is that the American coach Florence Vassy (Leah Shesky) falls for the Russian and vice versa. There is pressure on both players to throw the game and Freddie literally does so, hurling the chess pieces to the floor. Boris is pronounced world champion and promptly defects to England and to Florence.

A year later in Bangkok, Anatoly plays another Russian for the world championship. However, his wife in Russia, Svetlana (Heather Orth), wants him back and so do the Russians. To make matters worse Florence is Hungarian and her father is being held prisoner in Moscow. The Russians promise they will release the father to get Anatoly back. It's more than one kind of game of chess to be sure.

The fantastic score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA is as lush as Turandot and as dramatic as the slow-moving Parsifal. I consider it one of the most exciting scores of the 20th century and I am glad Stuart Bousel and director Brian Katz included most of the concept score in this production.

Bravo to Brian Katz for his superb direction and for bringing out the best in the singers. Chris Uzelac is outstanding as Anatoly, playing him as an impermeable Russian. His powerful vocal cords are terrific in "Were I Want to Be", "Anthem," "Argument" and "You and I." Mischa Stephens has a vibrant voice singing "What a Scene!," "Who'd Ever Think It?" from the British production. However, my two favorites songs from the production, "One Night In Bangkok" and "Pity the Child," should have more emotion. On the night I saw the show, the orchestra nearly drowned out Stephens on "One Night in Bangkok."

Leah Shesky rocks as Florence. She has thematic resonance singing "Nobody's Side," "Mountain Duet," "Heaven Help My Heart," and "You and I." Heather Orth brings down the house with "Someone Else's Story" with her dynamic vocal power, and Heather Orth and Leah Shesky are harmoniously energizing in "I Know Him So Well." The rest of the cast includes Alan Coyne who plays the Arbiter, a slinky referee-narrator who reminds me of the Emcee in Cabaret, plus Martin Bel, Stuart Bousel and Juliana Lustenader who are all melodiously stimulating.

Special mention should be made of the Greek chorus consisting Katie Francis, Toni Lynn Gundry, Paul Hogarth, Rowan Rivers, Gabrielle Traub, and Ted Zoldan, who are spectacular. Armando Fox provides great backup on keyboard with his six-piece orchestra. He does not overpower the singers, with the exception of "One Night in Bangkok."

Austin Kottkamp's set design is minimal, consisting of a few props like a chess board with pieces on top. Costumes by Brooke Jennings are 1980s wear. Choreography by Daunielle Rasmussen is excellent on the part of the chorus.

Chess runs through October 15, 2016, at The Custom Made Theatre Co.'s Sheldon Theatre, Sutter Street, 533 San Francisco. For tickets call 415-798-2682 or visit Coming up next is Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn opening in November.