Review: Slow Burn Plays ‘Chess’ to a Draw

Amy Miller Brennan and the cast of Slow Burn Theatre’s production of “Chess” Credit: Gemma Bramham

Amy Miller Brennan and the cast of Slow Burn Theatre’s production of “Chess” Credit: Gemma Bramham

Who could have predicted that old Cold War tensions would flare up in Ukraine when Slow Burn Theatre Co. announced a spring production of “Chess,” the ‘80s rock opera from Benny Anderrson and Bjorn Ulvaes of ABBA and lyricist Tim Rice?

The musical, which got its start with a 1984 concept album that topped British charts, details a passionate love triangle between American and Soviet chess masters competing for the love of a woman in the midst of a hotly contested international championship.

Like the complex geopolitical machinations currently being waged in Crimea, the plot of “Chess” is just as convoluted and that’s a battle that can’t be won.

Fortunately, in a nod to opera, a brief synopsis of the story is included in the program. Read it before the lights go down.

Rice has invited contemporary producers to freely tweak the show, which was a modest success on London’s West End but managed only a disappointing run on Broadway. The show is largely through composed, like opera, with songs to advance every action, introduce every character and sometimes just set the mood. With more than 30 numbers, “Chess” is one long, rarely pausing dance track.

The best songs — “One Night in Bangkok,” “Pity the Child,” “Heaven Help the Heart,” Someone Else’s Story” and “I Know Him So Well” — are easily lost in the mix and a few judicious cuts would improve the show.

Fortunately, music director Manny Schvartzman leads the cast and six-piece band through solid, often exhilarating performances. The triumvirate leads, Amy Miller Brennan (Florence), Matthew Korinko (Anatoly) and Rich Peña (Freddie), carry the heaviest load, offering compelling vocal and dramatic performances. Also notable are Carla Bordonada (Svetlana), Elvin Negron (Molokov) and Conor Walton (Arbiter), each with their own agendas for the lovers.

The main characters are supported by a large cast of “pawns,” who deserve to be mentioned and who are strongest vocally, especially in rich choral passages: Ann Marie Olson, Kaitlyn O’Neill, Kaela Antolino, Jaimie Kautzmann, Bruno Vida, Hugo Moreno, Elijah Davis and Spencer Perlman.

The action, under the direction of Patrick Fitzwater, takes place on an abstract set marked by oversized chess pieces, time clocks, checkered squares and movable blocks designed by Sean McClelland. Peña does double duty as costume designer, outfitting the cast in black, leather bar-inspired outfits, some more flattering than others, but provocative still.

On opening weekend, the production was at times a little rough, not surprising given the technical demands and sheer scope of the show. Several of the kinks, including several missed lighting cues, sloppy dancing and awkward transitions out of video segments, will certainly get worked out by the time the production transfers to the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center next month.

Slow Burn has gained a reputation in its first five years for tackling challenging shows other companies avoid and with great success. “Chess” is certainly one of the biggest undertakings, a game they clearly play to a draw, but checkmate is within sight.

If You Go
“Chess”
Slow Burn Theatre Co.
Through April 5
West Boca Performing Arts Center, 12811 W. Glades Rd., Boca Raton
April 10 – 13
Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura
Tickets $25 – 40 at SlowBurnTheatre.com


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