Sunday, April 29, 2018

Applause! Applause! Review of Chess at The Gallery Players by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Chess at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 8 (2018) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Book by Richard Nelson
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Bjorn Ulvaeus & Benny Andersson
Based on an idea by Tim Rice
Executive Producer/Director: Mark Harborth
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Ryan Graytok
Music Director: Benjamin Jacob
Scenic Designer: Grenville Burgess
Costume Designer: Antonio Consuegra
Production Stage Manager: Roxanne Goodby
Lighting Designer: Scott Cally
Props Designer: Gabrielle Giacomo
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Park Slope, New York 11215
Reviewed 4/21/18

Chess, a musical involving a Cold War-era chess match between American and Russian Grandmasters, opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on April 28, 1988. It closed on June 25, 1988 after 17 previews and 68 regular performances. Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA wrote the music, and Tim Rice wrote the lyrics. When you play chess, you must be extremely careful to select only the most strategically advantageous moves. This play highlights the fact this is also true in matters of the heart and regarding issues of statecraft. For those who are fans of the musical (whose soundtrack has an almost cult following), you will not be disappointed with this 30th anniversary revival. Producing and directing this complicated musical is not an easy task but The Gallery Players is to be congratulated for pulling it all together in a manner that will please most people. The superior vocals will enable you to bask in the perfection of the presentation of such songs as "Nobody's Side," "Someone Else's Story," I Know Him So Well," "You And I," "Pity The Child," "Heaven Help My Heart," and "Anthem." The remainder of the numbers presented are equally enjoyable. 

The star of this production is Carman Napier, who played Florence Vassy, the second, and former lover of Frederick Trumper, The American Grandmaster. While her charisma, beauty, and emotional conflict are clear, there is no reason provided as to why she would ever have loved Mr. Trumper. While Anatoly Sergievsky, the Russian Grandmaster played by Doug Chitel, has a beautiful voice, his acting leaves a lot to be desired. His performance is one-dimensional and the thought that he and Florence would have fallen so deeply in love in such a short period of time is completely unbelievable. Anatoly should have been played by a much younger and more attractive man. Joey Donnelly does a fine job as Freddy and brings his own unique perspective to the role. His rendition of "Pity The Child" brought me to tears (For those unfamiliar with this musical, though, I urge him to better enunciate "who" - the last word in the song). Mr. Donnelly has a very strong stage presence, and he and Ms. Vassy captivate the attention of the audience throughout the play. Jennifer Walder is brilliant as Svetlana, Anatoly's wife, who is brought to Budapest, Hungary by the Russians, to add to the pressure on her husband to reverse his decision to seek asylum in the United States. John Gibson, who plays Ivan Molokov (KGB), and Jan-Peter Pedross, who plays Walter Anderson (CIA), are quite convincing as rival spies who find common-ground to the extreme detriment of Florence Vassy, who has a great interest in finding her father, who sent her to America during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

During the World Chess Championship of 1988, the American and Russian sides seem to fight over everything. including whether Swedish or Finnish chairs should be used, and whether the Russian Grandmaster is receiving illegal signals by the changing flavors of the yogurt he is eating during the match. The first round takes place in Bangkok but, without a clear winner, the second round moves to Budapest, which is also the site of Arms Control Negotiations between the two counties. Pressure mounts on Anatoly to return to the U.S.S.R.. Svetlana, his wife, now has no car and no apartment (she stays with friends). Her brother was kicked out of medical school. His brother and wife had to find a smaller apartment, and his nephew's well-being has been threatened. The Russian Chess Federation has now charged him with embezzlement, and he has been told no one stood up in his defense. Finally, he has been led to believe that if he returns to mother Russia, the KGB will release Florence's father and reunite him with his daughter. Pressure mounts on both Freddy and Anatoly, which threatens the concentration of both Grandmasters. 

With the exception of miscasting Doug Chitel as Anatoly, the remainder of the cast is quite strong. There is some confusion when an ensemble member (Dennis Wees) who clearly played a Russian ("Please pass the salt.") later shows up in a prominent role as an American, but that is something most audience members may not catch. The production of the song "One Night In Bangkok" didn't bother me because it was too "white" as has been mentioned by some. However, I did feel it was a bit too "vanilla." Mark Harborth should've directed the cast to portray a greater sensuality and aggressive sexuality (e.g. perhaps a little bit more skin) to better contrast with Freddy Trumper's abstinence. The set and the costumes were period appropriate and The Orchestra (Conductor/Keyboards - Benjamin Jacob; Guitar - Alex Sadosky; and Drums - Miranda Siffer) sounded as if it was much larger than just three members.

Chess plays at The Gallery Players through May 13, 2018. Tickets cost $30.00 for adults, and $20.00 for Senior Citizens and Children 12 & under. You can make reservations by calling Ovation Tix at 212-352-3101 or by visiting Florence, the eternal optimist, says at the end of the play, "If only we can begin again. Be human again!" But perhaps the machinations depicted in the play are what it means to be human. This recognition, might in time, cause you to become cynical, until you see disappointment all around you as was reflected in Freddy's observation that "The Danube isn't even blue!" (e.g. "Nobody's On Nobody's Side").

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