Checkmate. Chess, currently playing at The Long Center, is a champion. Though the material is a problematic chaos with music by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice, the co-production from SommerStock Austin and The Austin Playhouse wisely sweeps the problematic points under the chess board.
The plot is clearly the weakest point of an otherwise flawless production. The story of an American chess champion and his rival Soviet counterpart is a metaphor for the Cold War Era which in turn is a symbol of how vindictive and manipulative all people can be. With all of the double-dealing and betrayal, the plot gets muddy at times, and Rice’s often wordy lyrics don’t make the story any easier to follow. If you are familiar with the show, you’ll follow it fine. If not, you may want to read the libretto.
Yet despite the faults of the material, the cast and crew involved give Austin a thrilling production that skillfully deflects attention from the problem areas and focuses instead on the compelling pawns involved in the game. Director Michel McKelvey tackles the project with zest. He paints interesting, dynamic pictures on the stage, with characters swirling around each other as they attempt to get the upper hand. The choreography by Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique is often simple, allowing us to focus on the key players rather than the stellar dance moves, though their work on “One Night in Bangkok” is a welcome exception in which they mix some Taekwondo with steps that would make Michael Jackson proud. And the design work in Chess is absolutely eye-catching. The costumes, lighting, and sets (by Glenda Barnes, Jason Amato, and Leilah Stewart respectively) all utilize a primarily black, white, and red color scheme and strong angular lines to create a supremely dark and moody world. The murky atmosphere wonderfully complement McKelvey’s staging and the edgy rock-and-roll score.
But it is the cast that really deserves the greatest amount of praise. While most of them are so young that they probably never saw the U.S.S.R. on a map in their elementary school history books, the ensemble understands the political side of the material well and are all able to handle the incredible vocal demands of the score, which is easily the most musically complex of the British rock operas that gained in popularity in the 1970s and 80s. As the American champ Freddie Trumper, Jacob Trussell is cocky and quite frankly a pompous ass. While the character certainly has his flaws, Trussell never lets those flaws alienate the audience. He’s likably unlikeable, in part because he lets us see some vulnerability underneath his bad-boy swagger and partly because he has a phenomenal rock voice.
As Anatoly Sergievsky, Trumper’s rival, David Gallagher plays a man who is constantly emotionally conflicted and pulled by everyone around him, whether it’s his competitor, lover, wife, or supposed friends. His “Where I Want to Be” is literally breath-taking in its intensity. Josie Yount also makes the most of her very brief role as Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana. Really, why is this character introduced half way through the second act? Regardless, Ms. Yount is impeccable, and her spotlight moments, “Someone Else’s Story” and “I Know Him So Well” allow her to display her vocal chops.
Still, the star and true Queen of the chess board is Marita Stryker as Florence Vassy. Ms. Stryker is a beautiful woman whose looks are eclipsed by her acting skills and whose acting is eclipsed by her voice, and she is absolutely heartbreaking in the second act as she realizes that she is a pawn in the largest chess game of the century. And in the first act, Ms. Stryker triumphantly leads the cast in the gorgeous anthem “Nobody’s Side.” She is certainly an actress to watch. We will see great things from her in the future.
Though it is sometimes hindered by a clunky book and overly complex score, Chess is, at its worst, good and at its best, it’s exquisite. This is by far a must-see of the Austin summer theater season.
Chess plays the Rollins Studio Theatre at The Long Center Saturday, August 11th at 2pm and 7:30pm. For tickets, go to www.summerstockaustin.org