Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

Chess – A Cold War Rock Musical

Music by Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus (formerly of ABBA)

Lyrics by Tim RiceChess at theo ubique no exit cage

Book by Richard Nelson

Driecter by Fred Anzevino & Brenda Didier

Choreographed by Brenda Didier

Musical Direction by Ryan Brewster

Produced by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in association with Michael James

At the No Exit Cafe, Chicago

Strong production values saves dated Cold War rock musical

Chess is a dated (1986) rock musical filled with what New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich called it:  “the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand” and described it as “a suite of temper tantrums, [where] the characters … yell at one another to rock music”.  I found that assessment to be somewhat true although Theo Ubique’s production made an effort to give the show some heart. That mostly came from Maggie Portman’s fine singing and engaging performance as Florence the main love interest for the two Chess champions.  In 1988, Chess lasted only 2 months on Broadway.

Chess at theo ubique no exit cage

I must confess that I’m not a fan of pop/rock musicals nor disco nor rock-sung recitative. All of these elements were present in droves in Chess. While directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier trimmed Chess, it still is 2 hours and 40 minutes with intermission. Much too long to sustain interest – I’d advise cutting some songs and scenes.

Chess at theo ubique no exit cage

The story involves a romantic triangle between two top players, an American, Freddie (Courtney Crouse) and a Russian, Anatoly (Jeremy Trager) in a world chess championship, and a woman, Florence (Maggie Portman) who manages the American and falls in love with the Russsian; all in the context of a Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, during which both countries wanted to win international chess tournaments for the  propaganda value.

Chess at theo ubique no exit cage

Chess is anchored by the terrific Maggie Portman whose performance alone is worth the ticket price! Jeremy Trager effectively plays Anatoly as an emotional, caring fellow with heart.  Courtney Crouse plays the American as a crude, raw punk-rocker who yells out his rock anthems more than sings them.  Crouse’ persona gives new meaning to “Ugly American.”

Filled with innovative staging and fine choreography by Brenda Didier, the supporting ensemble danced, acted and sang well. Jenny Guse, Jenny Lamb, John B. Leen, Ben Mason and Travis Walker each had their moments. John Taflan, as The Arbiter and Stephanie Herman, as Svetlana, landed their songs nicely.

The best song in the entire mediocre score was the moving anthem “I know Him So Well” that Meggie Portman and Stephanie Herman reached the heavens singing. Too bad the show didn’t have more tunes like that.

In summary, Chess is a dated 80’s pop/rock musical that tries to do too much yet the folks at Theo Ubique polished and tightened the work into an enticing evening of musical theatre.  Their intimate setting at the No Exit Cafe serves the show well. You’ll probably enjoy Chess more than I did.  I can’t get over so much rock-style singing.  Chess will be a curiosity to some and a fresh new rock musical to others. The sheer production values and stirring performances by Portman and Trager make Chess a treat. Theo Ubique mounts worthy shows.


Tom Williams

Jeff Recommended

Chess, A Cold War Rock Musical, will continue through April 25, 2010 at The No Exit Cafe located at 6970 N. Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park.  The performance schedule is Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.  Tickets range from $25-$30 and a dinner package can be purchased for $25 more.  To reserve your spot call 800-596-4849 or online at The Redlins Morse stop is across the street.

One thought on “Chess – A Cold War Rock Musical

  • John K

    I am a big fan of this play and was worried that they would massacre it. I thought they all did a fantastic job. This goes especially for Jeremy Trager playing Anatoly. He was the purest talent in this show.

    I enjoyed this production as one among the best productions I have ever seen. In such a small and confined place as the theater it was presented in, that presentation was brilliant. It was personal and every one of the actors was effective in pulling these heart strings.

    Thank you to the entire cast and crew for creating one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life!

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