Chess. Musical. Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Directed by Katz. Musical Direction by Armando Fox. Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco, CA, 94102.
Custom Made Theatre successfully tackles Chess, the cult hit by Tom Rice and the ABBA men with a checkered (wrong game) past. The show was a three-year hit in London’s West End when it opened in 1986, rode the wave of a chart-topping concept album, but then bombed on Broadway in 1988. The strong score features elements of rock opera, pop, classical to show tune, while the story of a very political charged chess tournament couches a universal love triangle set amidst the last vestiges of the Cold War. Director Brian Katz has assembled an excellent ensemble cast that highlights all that’s good about Chess.
The battle between American chess grandmaster Freddy Trumper (Mischa Stephens) and Soviet champion Anatoly Sergievsky (Chris Uzelac) occurs not only on the chessboard, but encompasses opposing political ideologies and the struggle over a woman, (Florence, played by Leah Shesky) who falls for Anatoly, leaving Freddy bitter. There are clever first act numbers setting up the storyline; the crass commercialism of the event (“The Merchandisers”), the background machinations of the politics (“The Diplomats”) and the drudgery of Embassy clerks (“Embassy Lament”).
Rice is an excellent lyricist, so there’s no need for expository dialog. Andersson and Ulvaeus save their best melodies for the strong second act with four show stopping numbers. “One Night in Bangkok”, with its rap verse is sung by Freddy with the ensemble, is one of Chess’ most recognizable tunes when it became a worldwide hit. Heather Orth plays Anatoly’s estranged wife Svetlana with a resigned sadness that’s overwhelming. Used as a pawn to get her ex to throw an important match, in this production she gets to delivers the sumptuous ballad “Someone Else’s Story”, and it’s the vocal highlight of the production. Leah Shesky and Heather, lover and degraded ex-wife sing of the absurdity of their situations in “I Know Him So Well”. In “You and I”, Anatoly (Chris Uzelac), Florence and Svetlana sing on their flawed relationships.
The sets chess board square background is a take on the original concept album cover and director Katz often has the actors move like chess pieces. The ensemble cast (Alan Coyne/Arbiter, Martin Bell/Molotov, Stuart Bousel/Walter, Julianna Lustenader/TV Hostess, Katie Francis, Toni Lynn Guidry, Paul Hogarth, Rowan Rivers, Gabrielle Traub, and Ted Zoltan) give it their all.
Both a Cold War period piece and sad, timeless romantic drama, this production of Chess is quite an accomplished production, custom made for the small stage, small budget company.
Performances run September 15th through October 15nd. www.custommade.org 415.798.2682