You know that game chess? The one where players sit quietly, contemplating the other person’s next move? Well the musical production that the Celebration Company put on with the same title is anything but quiet and contemplative.
The music is loud and fun and the story is thought-provoking and definitely unique; so, if you’ve never been a fan of the game, this musical production may make you change your mind and see chess in a whole different light. It certainly did so for me. Until tonight, I’d never considered watching a game of chess, let alone an entire musical production centered on it.
The show centers around three main characters: Florence (J. Malia Andrus), a Hungarian-born woman who arrives in Bangkok with her colleague and love interest, the world-renowned American chess player Freddie Trumper (Warren Garver), and the Russian competitor Anatoly Sergievsky (David Barkley).
As the play progresses, we soon learn that there will be a love triangle between Florence, Freddie, and Anatoly. The two men begin to compete against each other over something much less trivial then a simple game of chess and find themselves entangled in the complexities of the game of love.
Now, if you’re expecting a modern musical, then you’re going to be disappointed. This musical is from the late 80’s and the actors dress accordingly. The music follows suit, so to speak, as there is definitely a pop music sound that you’d only find from the decade that keyboards built.
The ensemble definitely blew me away with their rendition of “One Night in Bangkok,” although my appreciation have been partly based on the fact that it’s the only song I knew before I saw the show. The musicianship of the “pit orchestra” is fantastic, and Garver (pictured above, with "Bangkok" ensemble) has a fantastic voice to match such a fun tune. The choreography for this song is also outstanding; there are some difficult lifts at the end, and the dancers had to keep in rhythm with each other to make this work. Some of the choreography for other songs could use some work, honestly, but the dancers’ work paid off on my favorite tune.
As previously stated, Garver has a star-quality voice, and he shines on the stage. At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not I would enjoy his interpretation of Freddie; it wasn’t until he belted out the lyrics to “Pity the Child” that I made my final decision. He is amazing, just breathtaking on the stage. He’s playing a character that you’re supposed to love to hate, and this is the song that really makes the character his (and ours). It’s the one time we get to see inside of this egotistical maniac’s sad history, and the moment Garver crashes to the ground in anguish the audience finally feels his pain. This is an auspicious first outing for Garver at the Station.
While Chess might be Garver’s Station debut, I’ve had the pleasure of watching David Barkley (pictured above) perform a number of times. With each new role, he seems to have the uncanny ability to become someone completely new. I’ve seen him as Polonius in Hamlet and as Ed Anderson in Come Back, Little Sheba (just to name a couple) but never have I seen him take on a role with such emotion and depth. Anatoly is a difficult character to perfect, but Barkley does just that even with his phony Russian accent.
Who could forget the lovely Florence? Andrus (below, with Barkley) did a top-notch job with this character. A beautiful actress whose grace on stage is almost as outstanding as those high notes she belts out in songs like “You and I” and the finale. Andrus draws the audience in and makes them feel her pain. I, for one, was definitely holding back tears as Florence met her father for the first time. She’s an easy character to get lost in and to empathize with. And her duet with Barkley’s Anatoly was unforgettable and full of passion.
If you’re looking for a night of emotional pop-rock music and a high-stakes geopolitical metaphor for love, you should make plans to see Chess at the Station as soon as possible. It will take you from Bangkok to Budapest with characters that you’re sure to adore before their last move.
Chess continues through December 21; all performances begin at 8 p.m. For reservations, visit the Station website or call 217-384-4000.