The not for profit community theater PM&L (Palette, Masque and Lyre) continues its commendable 59th season with that infamous Cold War Musical, Chess.
Set admidst the backgrounds of Bangkok and Budapest, with book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, how could such a rock opera of the ‘80’s fail?
Surprisingly, it only lasted two weeks on Broadway, but it’s gone on to enjoy international favoritism-seldom done it’s true, but popular none the less. Perhaps the longevity of songs “I Know Him So Well,” “One Night in Bangkok,” “Pity the Child” and “Anthem”?
Chess is a metaphor for a love triangle, or as New York Times critic Frank Rich more aptly defined it “a love rectangle.” It’s a good story, if not at times convoluted; inspired by the political Intrigue surrounding the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Chess Championship, I agree with Director Lorrie Ferguson’s statement “it’s about passion for something you love, the people you love, and passion for your country.”
Ferguson’s production has a 29-cast ensemble, many who play multiple parts. (This is something I’ve always appreciated about PM&L—they are consistently representative of real life in their casting. All ages, sizes, shapes, and talents grace that stage.)
Creatively supported by the music and vocal direction of Paul Bleadow and Kenzie Hughes, the five member band delivers that 80’s synthesizer and pop rock sound expertly; the chorus, despite their energy, often times miss the tempo and notes of Chess’ challenging music. (Hopefully, just Opening Night nerves).
The set design by Art Jones is a star in its own right, with excellent utilization of that intimate stage-pieces slide and rotate and the stage is framed by a striking, clean black and white chessboard and knight pieces. Projected videography by Gary Luz also adds specificity to the evolving story.
Antioch’s Rebecca Zellar as Florence carries the brunt of the musical, and fortunately for us, she knows how to both sing and act. She is genuine and believable, definitely strong willed as the babysitter to the American chess champ. Zellar’s duets with Michael Metcalf’s Anatoly are especially moving as well as beautiful. Zellar runs the gamut of emotions in this production and does so with vibrancy and passion. She’s just fascinating.
Elgin’s Michael Metcalf as the Russian Chess champion Anatoly delivers an exquisite “Anthem”, truly deserving that extended applause at the close of Act One. His consistent chemistry with every actor on that stage is evident. Metcalf’s Anatoly is quiet, thoughtful, dynamic and extremely seductive.
Spring Grove’s Jeffrey DuBois is the loutish, arrogant, temperamental American Chess champion Freddy Trumper (yes, that’s the character’s name). Although he strains at times to hit the high notes, DuBois is a rock star. He also gets to provide some needed comic relief and engagingly so.
But there are four definitive scene stealers in this production; they are confident and natural performers. You also wish they were on stage more. Kevin Pollack is The Arbiter and he is perfect as the coldly objective, no nonsense referee. His onstage presence is commanding. Jessica Augustine is a heartbreaking Svetlana with a gorgeous mezzo soprano voice. You want to hate her, but you just can’t the way Augustine plays her.
She knows Anatoly and she knows she’s a pawn. Mark Badtke is the heavy- handed, forceful Molokov. As portrayed by Badtke, his character has some kindness left in his heart and is quite likeable despite his deceit. Matthew Leptich is an undeniably smooth Walter, the CIA/supposed Trumper business agent. As always, Leptich is nuanced and potent. And as brief as their scenes/songs may be, all four of these strong character actors have their moments in the sun.
Chess tells us all the world is a chess game full of moves; despite addressing the hostility of international political activities of the 1980’s it’s message still holds true to today. Chess is definitely a musically complicated rock opera and although public misconceptions exist that it’s a musical solely about the game of chess, PM&L’s production proves its truly not.
At two hours and 50 minutes, passion, ambition, and the power of love thrive on that stage. Chess may be categorized in the theater world as a beleaguered seldom done musical, but I still like it a lot, and it’s well worth the drive to Antioch.
• Despite beginning an acting career in first grade, Regina Belt-Daniels continues to do what she loves best: travel, teach, act, direct, serve on theater boards, and write theater reviews.