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Review: Arvada Aims to Simplify ‘Chess’

The musical Chess tries to bring many concepts together. Written in the early 1980’s, the musical focuses on Cold War relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union while telling the story of a series of World Championship Chess matches between American and Soviet chess players. If you think you’re starting to see a metaphor, you’re right. A collaboration between Tim Rice (who had collaborated heavily with Andrew Lloyd Weber previously) and Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (formerly of the band ABBA), Chess began with a concept album, which was tinkered with a re-tooled into a West End production, which then made its way to Broadway. All three major instantiations include impressive, chart-busing rock songs, but the complex plot points jump around in order between versions. The current production at the Arvada Center is in some ways another version of the musical — they have (with permission) substantially re-ordered and re-assigned songs, as well as streamlining and changing the main plot points.

Arvada Center Re-Orders the Moves of ‘Chess’

HE SAID: Chances are that if you’ve heard of this show, you have also heard about how troublesome it can be because the story is so disjointed (and if you hadn’t heard that, now you have). Having never seen this show before, I was a little apprehensive and very intrigued to see how the Arvada Center would fare with their shot at the script. The plot in this new iteration is clear (an accomplishment in its own right). In the end, this is a lovers’ story complicated by socio-political struggles, but the humanity of the story isn’t helped by a lot of elements. The ensemble spends a fair amount of the show dressed as chess pieces, doing interpretive dances mimicking the matches, under the watchful eye of a God-like Arbitor. These parts are performed well, but distract from the real story and delay connection to the main characters.

(Disclosure: SHE auditioned for this production and was not cast.)

SHE SAID: I LOVE this musical. It has been one of my favorite musicals since I was in high school, and many of the songs make my shower-belting top ten every week. I was VERY excited at the possibility that with new changes, all of the incredibly moving music from the show might finally be surrounded by a story that helps rather than hinders them. I totally agree with you that the plot is clear, whew! The best moments of the musical (the big, emotional, shower-worthy rock songs) are well preserved in this new instantiation, and some of the biggest changes, like reassigning songs to different characters, worked quite well and gave a welcome new dimension to some previously neglected characters. Most notably, Megan Van De Hey’s character, Svetlana, is featured far more prominently in this than any previous version, and hearing more about her story adds a lot of depth and sympathy to the central conflict of the show.

Emotions Trump Logic in ‘Chess’

HE SAID: There is a lot going on in this show, and each ensemble member is seriously busy with complicated, well-executed choreography, inhumanly fast costume changes, and tricky harmonies. The vocals are extremely well handled across the ensemble and leads, and not just technically but emotionally, as well. With this rock score, a lot of the actors have to belt their emotional high points, and it is impressive – but never did it feel impressive just for impression’s sake. There is a motivation behind each note and it is wonderful to watch in those simpler moments. Each of the four leads – Tally Sessions, Gregg Goodbrod, Meghan Van De Hey, and Lisa Karlin – brilliantly perform stunning emotional power ballads that elicited almost show-stopping cheers from the audience the night we saw the show.

SHE SAID: YES– the high points are definitely those emotional moments, and the leading roles are very well-performed. My favorite is Tally Sessions as Anatoly. He has a quiet intensity that is spot-on for a chess champion, but a playful charm that also registers immediately. That, and, I think the technical term for this is, he can sing his FACE off. His rendition of, “Anthem” at the end of Act 1 was perhaps my favorite moment of the show. Gregg Goodbrod as Freddie also has wickedly impressive vocal chops, although a few times his lyrics run together (while still sounding amazing) which makes it harder to connect emotionally with an already abrasive character. I also enjoyed Lisa Karlin as Florence, especially during the second act when her character’s energy is a bit more free and relaxed (well, mostly). But much of the evening clutters rather than highlights these compelling stories. Almost the entire show is sung, including quite a few wordy, patter-esque songs in place of dialogue. These songs especially, featuring complex (and very well executed) harmonies, sometimes push complicated dialogue to an unnatural pace, and hearing one after another can leave the audience somewhat bewildered.

Chess Symbolism Dominates Design

HE SAID: I think everything about the second act is better than the first. The story is clearer, the characters make more sense, and the second act really gets to the heart of real people in tricky situations. But that’s not to say the first act doesn’t have several high points. The finale where Sessions as Anatoly sings “Anthem” is magnificent. Karlin in “Nobody’s Side” is out of this world. And a surprisingly charming number, “Embassy Lament,” is splendid in its simplicity, requiring very precise timing and movement, and remarkably performed by the ensemble members.

Arvada Center, Chess, Denver, TheatreSHE SAID: Ultimately, the very best moments in the show are definitely the ones where the chess metaphor is in the background, and the human story shines through. For much of the show, the chess symbolism, while creative and stunning, is really over the top. I usually enjoy it when messages are sent in multiple theatrical ways, but I gradually wanted to move past the life-size pieces moving on the checkered board. And actually, although I was previously very familiar with all of the songs, the unrelenting symbolism in the design actually called my attention to how many of the lyrics are about the game, the score, the players, the moves, the squares, and the rules. Some of the songs include these lyrics more cleverly than others, but unfortunately even the clever ones seemed unnecessary after my metaphor saturation point was reached.

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Brilliance Shines Through Many ‘Chess’ Pieces

THEY SAID: Shakespeare isn’t the only brilliant creator to have his problem plays – so, too does the musical theatre canon. According to the creators of Chess, even decades later they consider the show a work that could benefit from re-configuration. Ultimately, the Arvada Center’s new iteration of the piece successfully tells a complicated love story filled with heartache. Although there are a lot of elements that distract from such a human story,  there are many beautiful elements and wonderful performances that help support it, and will make you glad to be a part of the story of Chess.

Arvada Center, Chess, Denver, Theatre

For more information on Chess, see the wikipedia page. Chess plays through April 15 at the Center for Arts and Humanities in Arvada, and April 18 – April 29 at the Lone Tree Arts Center. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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