Slow Burn Puts the Moves on “Chess”
By Skip Sheffield
Hey kids, let’s put on the most difficult show possible!
That’s what I imagine artistic director Patrick Fitzwater said when he proposed tackling “Chess,” the short-lived Broadway musical, for Slow Burn Theatre Company.
I saw a national touring production of “Chess” back in 1990 at the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami Beach. I don’t remember much about the production, but I do know it looked completely different from Slow Burn’s take, which continues through April 5 at West Boca Raton High School Performing Arts Theater.
“Chess” is set during the Cold War at a grandmaster chess competition that is more than just a game. Frederick “Freddie” Trumper (Rick Pena) is the cocky American grandmaster and Anatoly Sergievsky (Matthew Korinko) is his reserved Soviet opponent.
The characters recall their real-life counterparts: bad-boy braggart American Bobby Fischer and the more refined and civilized Boris Spassky and their televised 1972 “Match of the Century.” The concept was originally a 1984 double LP record album, with songs by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaceus of Swedish pop group ABBA, with lyrics by Tim Rice (“Lion King”). The minimal book is by playwright Richard Nelson.
The entire production is “sung through,” like an opera, with no spoken dialogue. The story begins in the Italian town of Merano. The president of the International Chess Federation, known as The Arbiter (Conor Walton) explains the setup in “The Story of Chess.” As Freddie and Anatoly contemplate their moves surrounded by dancing players representing chess pieces, they are encouraged and advised by their seconds. Freddie’s is the Hungarian-born, English-raised beauty, Florence (Amy Miller Brennan). Anatoly’s is the scheming Molokov (Elvin Negron).
Watching a chess game is not very exciting, so a plot, such as it is, is added as a romantic triangle amongst Freddie, Florence and Anatoly. Anatoly is quickly smitten by the alluring Florence, and because Freddie has not been her ideal love mate, she is up for a swap. Anatoly is up for a major life change.
Rick Rena is an actor with dark Latin good looks. For this role he has chosen to bleach his hair an unnatural shade of orange. Because his character is not very pleasant or likable, perhaps this physical change is meant to underscore that.
In her auspicious Slow Burn Theatre debut, Amy Miller Brennan is far and away the best thing about this show, although in Act One she is saddled with a most unflattering outfit. She is beautiful and her singing voice is sensational; especially in a heart-wrenching duet “I Know Him So Well” with Anatoly’s estranged wife Svetlana (Carla Boronada, also in excellent voice).
Rick Pena is the costume designer, which brings us to another point. He has chosen a black leather and vinyl motif for both men and woman of the chorus, which casts the show in a completely different and darker light. If you are not into leather fetish fashion, you might consider it sinister.
There are only a few memorable songs in the score. Aside from the aforementioned “I Know Him So Well” there are “You and I,” “Someone Else’s Story” and the radio hit “One Night in Bangkok.”
The vocal harmonies are gorgeous and many Schvartzman’s band is again excellent. The raked, chess-themed set by Sean McClelland must be challenging for the performers. Additional visuals are provided by large video monitors.
I don’t know what happened to the 1990 national tour, but I can guarantee the budget must have been 100 times larger than Slow Burn’s. For that, this is another minor miracle for this fearless company.
Shows are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The show goes on the road April 10-13 at the Aventura Center. Tickets are $40 adults, $35 seniors and $25 students. Call 866-811-4111 or go to www.slowburntheatre.org.