Review by Terry Gaisin
Q B pawn to d4! Not a coded spy message but an opening gambit. The game of chess was created during the sixth century in India or maybe Persia or perhaps China. It still is popular and such tournaments as Levitsky v Marshall in 1912; Byrne v Fischer in ’56; the Kasparov/Topalov match in 1999 was only out-viewed by the former taking on IBM’s “Deep Blue” in 1996.
The winner of the 1974 Worldvision TV talent show was won by a Swedish group. Two males-Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus were joined by singer/dancers Agnetha and Anni-Frid and by incorporating their 1st initials became known as ABBA. Remember them?
The ‘B‘ Team joined Tim Rice; A.L. Webber ‘s lyricist to create a metaphorical story of Cold War antipathies as seen through an International Chess tournament. Operatic in format, the three dozen arias tell of East/West aversion; politics; competitive rationales; and a three-way love affair that included both adversaries and the American’s female seconder. A BIG, play, with an enormous cast; a 20-piece orchestra; manual & mechanical stage-props; tricky lighting and elaborate costumes. No, not a major downtown theatre but Mississauga’s City Centre Musical Productions.
The basic choice; do it large and professional; or don’t undertake it at all. Once the decision was made, choosing the cast; contracting the director, and finding a wheelbarrow full of gelt was necessary if the result were to be more than just acceptable… it had to be pretentious and polished. Not surprising given the dedication of CCMP team-mates; the result is totally positive.
Given the enormity of challenge, I somehow balk at calling Maria Moore -director. Somehow Artistic Conductor seems more apt. While there may be only seven major roles, numerically- the support cast is umpteen; the production team enormous, and the hours of work and rehearsal time boggles my mind. And all of this supervised by the ‘artistic conductor’. Moore has incorporated a surfeit of immobile posturing to great advantage and thus has eliminated the necessity of entry/exeunt distractions.
The projected backdrops of Merano’s Italian/Swiss Alps are ambience enhancers. Coupled with the detailed costuming, any audience member who has visited Northern Italy will undergo a sense of deja-vu. Hubby was especially pleased about the Powerpoint-ed Chess Hall-of-Fame tributes shown during one on-stage competition scene.
The U.S. Grand-master; undoubtedly an ill-disguised Bobby Fischer, is ‘Freddie Trumper’ and he’s a typical ‘ugly American’ in manner and attitude. Matthew E. McCarthy captures all the negative arrogance that reflects a certain present White House resident. He’s seconded by Florence Vassy who is also his girlfriend. Erin Mouchian’s portrayal makes this character the pivotal and certainly standout role overall. Both are micro-managed by Paul Fletcher’s unmentioned but quite probably CIA handler and manipulator. He even looks the part! McCarthy’s Russian adversary is Anatoly and Steve Kirk is the most sympathetic of the lead characters. Kirk bears a strong facial resemblance to a young Oscar Levant. His handlers, especially Ted Ambrose’s ‘Molokov’ are overtly MKVD, and like Putin, their threatening deportment is as un-opaque as Putin’s. Kirk’s wife Svetlana is still back in Russia, but when she shows up in Act II, Maria De Palma displays one of the best vocal talents we’ve enjoyed in years of theatre-going. The last major role is that of the tournament’s president and arbiter. Karl Kwiatkowski has an unusual counter-tenor voice but his diction and projection-style contribute to a feel of lower range effectiveness.
There are some standout arias and duets throughout the play. Some are even memorable without the context of ‘CHESS’. Kirk’s “Where I want to Be” is a paean to every Little Leaguer or NHL wannabe. De Palma tells us about “Someone Else’s Story” that reverberates with everyone else in the audience. The full-cast ending to Act I, is aptly titled ‘Anthem’ and is as much an effective & stirring flag-waver as ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; “Dixie” or even ‘Oklahoma- O.K.!’
Critics rarely mention the contribution of the production team. One can only imagine the dedication of stage manager Glen Pringle, or the rehearsal efforts of Bob Hardinge and his musicians. I imagine that this must certainly be a labour of love to have exhibited such commitment. Another omission- the support cast. I couldn’t help but observe the very noticeable contributions of such ensemble-members as Mitch Munro; Leslie Bentley; Adam Holroyd; Jennifer Stoneman & Alix Kingston. All gave full measure and seemingly enjoyed the effort & stress of singing; dancing plus constant costume changing. Herculean but consistently done with a smile.
I’m not sure if this play is in a Sold Out situation. Better call Theatre Meadowvale 905-615-4720 before it’s ‘check-mate’ for CHESS, The Musical, on Mar. 26th.