There’s something special about seeing the first play done in a newly renovated theater. The Burke Theater at the US Navy Memorial’s Heritage Center is now a beautiful little black box, sharp and intimate. Unfortunately, Stroyka Theater’s Chess fails to build on that special atmosphere and instead is a rather lackluster production
The musical – a difficult collaboration between super-lyricist Tim Rice and one-half of the Abba team – is about a romantic triangle against the backdrop of a world chess championship played at the height of the Cold War. In the first act, American challenger Freddie (Josh Canary) travels to Bangkok to compete against the Russian World champion Anatoly (Christopher Furry) under the watchful eye of an international chess arbiter (Brian Hackman). Anatoly falls for Freddie’s chess manager and one-time girlfriend, Florence (Jennifer Gusso) and defects to America. In the second Act, the principals journey to Budapest for the second half of the championship. There, Anatoly’s Russian manager, Molokov (Walter Gottlieb), and his estranged wife, Svetlana (Roselie Vasquez-Yetter) pressure Anatoly to return to the Soviet Union. The show features an additional 20 ensemble members who play various roles throughout the show.
The two champions, and the woman they both love, carry a significant amount of the book and score. Unfortunately, two of them disappoint. Jennifer Gusso is flat and disengaged, failing to connect emotionally either with the two characters who love her or with the audience. Her voice is not the equal to the difficult music, and she had a hard time making herself heard above the overloud orchestra. If only she could have approached the emotional intensity of the adorable Arielle Granatstein Gottlieb, who plays Florence as a girl.
Although Josh Canary is appropriately sarcastic and abrasive as Freddie, he is one-dimensional and lacks the depth to make the character likeable to either his scene partners or the audience. While his voice is fine in the baritone range, he is unable to handle the full range of the part and struggles when the score rises into the tenor range.
Christopher Furry, whose acting seems a little stilted, is nonetheless in good voice as Anatoly and does not have any problems staying on top of the music. He creates a show-stopping finale to Act I with a wonderful rendition of the song “Anthem”.
There is some good work done in supporting roles. Walter Gottlieb is sound as the Russian manager, Molokov, enigmatic in the first Act and menacing in the second, and he sang his songs ably. Brian Hackman is in excellent voice as the Arbiter, particularly in the Act II opener, “Arbiter’s Song”. Roselie Vasquez-Yetter plays the part of Molokov’s wife, Svetlana, with appropriately visible but restrained emotion and sings beautifully.
The production as a whole, regrettably, seems riddled with bad choices and appears generally unready to open. The decision to perform without microphones means that several in the ensemble are difficult to hear both when they sing and when they speak. Several do not enunciate well. Although some perform ably, some of them look distinctly uncomfortable on stage.
There are fumbles and bungles throughout the production. Actors have difficulty handling some of the props and they occasionally stumble down stairwells. The spotlight doesn’t follow the actors properly. These problems may disappear after a few shows. However, the PowerPoint animation of the two-dimensional chess pieces was distracting as were several mistakes actors made moving chess pieces. Director Roman Gusso stages a lovely choral piece at the back of the theater, thus requiring the audience to turn around in order to watch them. He also stages musical numbers between soloists standing at opposite sides of the stage, uncomfortably reminding us of a tennis match. The cast smokes so many herbal cigarettes on stage that it left the theater with a haze like a poker back room.
These problems obscure the good work the production does. They use the space well; they wisely keep the props and set pieces to a minimum; except as noted above, Gusso’s blocking choices are interesting and largely effective; the charcoal and pencil drawings set the mood nicely. The music was well played, but, as mentioned, the keyboard was overamplified.
The decision to relocate to the Burke Theater is likely to be a good move for Stroyka. It is a comfortable space that should serve a small group well. However, they may want to extend their rehearsal time before opening productions.
It should be noted that a couple of years ago, I auditioned unsuccessfully for one of director Roman Gusso’s productions, but this did not affect the objectivity of my review.
Based on a concept by Tim Rice
Music by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson
Directed by Roman S. Gusso
Produced by Stroyka Theater
Reviewed by Ted Ying
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