Chess at the Generic Theatre was sublime. Sublime is defined as something with such excellence or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe. My companions Sean and John and I were continually exclaiming “WOW” throughout the play. It is a true must-see for the season.
Chess premiered on Broadway in 1988 but closed after 68 performances. ‘Chess’, by Tim Rice and the band members from Abba (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) has a genuinely fantastic score, perhaps one of the few musicals between ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Hamilton’ to meaningfully sound like a worthwhile product of the popular music of its day. ‘I Know Him So Well’ and ‘One Night In Bangkok’ were actual pop hits, and the other songs are mostly on the strong side with strong notes and beautiful ballads.
But in the capable hands of Shon M Stacy, the audience has the pleasure of seeing superb vocal talent along with an interesting story and a riveting message. Stacy writes that “Life is a play. We choose our battles and our compatriots. Move left or move right. To play or not to play.”
The opening sequence makes a strong statement about the direction of the story, it also makes immediately clear the very high quality of the music. Generic Theatre’s combination of lush orchestra, exacting musical direction (Karla D. Robinson), superb chorus and excellent sound design (Charles Owrey) make this the best choral performance of any play I have seen this season.
When the chorus returns for the second number in a complete costume change, and then another, and then another, it soon becomes clear that costumes are to be a key highlight of the production. Costume designer Katelyn Jackson has assembled an incredible array of outfits, channelling many of the colourful excesses of the 1980s
As for the musical itself, it is staged in the Generic Theater by director Shon M Stacy with Music Direction by Karla D Robinson with a conductor and 20 members of the Orchestra. The story takes place from 1979 to 1983, and is inspired by the celebrated 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match. The players here are embodied by Michael Lee Ashby as obnoxious American Freddie Trumper and Jonathan McCormick as the heartthrob Russian Anatoly Sergievsky. Angelica Michelle, playing Hungarian emigre Florence Vassy, is Freddie’s chess second, and the love interest ping-ponging between Freddie and Anatoly. Tara Mosopulos is Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana, trotted out by the KGB to toy with Anatoly’s mind.
Angelica Michelle gives a performance of great maturity, depth and flair as Florence Vassy. Michelle brings a vulnerability to a woman who could be seen as self-serving, raising the stakes of her romantic attachment to Anatoly and making Florence’s quest to find her father all the more believable and affecting. Michelle’s rendition of hits such as “Nobody’s Side” and “Heaven Help My Heart” is a pleasure to hear. It is my opinion that Angelica Michelle could easily perform on Broadway.
As Russian Anatoly Sergievsky,Jonathan McCormick plays with virile stoicism and is a picture of cool control, a product of Soviet training and grooming as a chess winning machine. His powerhouse voice, is equally masterful delivering Anatoly’s songs such as “Where I Want to Be,” and the stirring “Anthem.”
Michael Lee Ashby throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of American Freddie Trumper, an unlikeable lead character if ever there was one. In a role that is almost unsingable, a few of the very highest notes are a bit of a strain for Ashby, but his overall singing in the role is very good. In Ashby’s performance of “Pity the Child,” which reveals a sympathetic back-story for Freddie, he still retains a hard edge to the character rather than indulging in melodramatic angst.
Mark W Reid brings his highly characterful expression to the role of American television executive Walter de Courcey. Jim Dwyer, pours forth his powerful baritone vocals as manipulative Russian schemer Alexander Molokov.
The other featured member of the cast, and one who nearly steals more than a few scenes, is the narrator and omnipresent Arbiter as portrayed byTony Robinson (With a well-timed look or quip), Robinson brings a welcome sense of humor throughout the proceedings; his uncanny tenor voice also shines in his musical numbers, especially “The Story of Chess” and the “Arbiter’s Song.”
We are first introduced to Svetlana Sergievskaya as played by Tara Moscopulos in the prologue but we do not see her again until Act 2. Anatoly’s wife is unearthed by Molokov as a means of controlling the result of Anatoly’s performance in the world championship game in Bangkok. Moscopulos portrays Svetlana as a staunch survivor rather than a victim, making her a worthy adversary for Florence in their competition for Anatoly’s affection and attention. Moscopulo’s delivery of choice ballad “Someone Else’s Story” is wonderful, and when Michelle and Moscopulos combine for classic duet “I Know Him So Well,” the result is quite extraordinary.
As there was no mention in the playbill of the stage design, I have to assume credit goes to Shon M Stacy. The chess board set along with the placement of the orchestra upstage and video projections overhead was superb and provided the performers with an excellent vehicle to display their talents.
The review would not be complete without another mention of the outstanding work of the Choir. The choral singing is magnificent, and the amount of acting and dancing also performed by the chorus in a wide range of roles is extremely impressive.
As I wrote in the first paragraph of this review, Chess is a must-see. You will be swept away by the beauty of the signing and stagecraft of this play. Get your tickets before they sell out.
Generic Theater “Chess” by Tim Rice through permissions granted by Samuel French Inc. Performances take place at Generic Theater , on June 28 – July 21 . Get more info, prices, and purchase tickets here or by calling 757-441-2160