CHESS THE MUSICAL Jacksonville University Theatre review

by Erin Thursby
If you aren’t a musical theatre geek, you may not have heard of Chess. I must be, since long ago, I wore out my bootleg tape of the musical. Despite this devotion, I had never actually seen Chess staged. That’s why I was so happy to hear that JU was doing a production.
Chess saw its biggest success across the pond in London’s West End. By the time it reached America, the Cold War was winding down. Later versions attempted to incorporate the end of the Cold War, but after the Soviet Union fell, the retcons stopped. At this point, Chess has finally crossed that invisible line wherein it has become coolly retro rather than sadly dated. It’s not a perfect musical (and it never was) but flawed as it is, it’s a musical that’s not hard to love–with its pop-rock ABBA-esque score and Tim Rice touch.
The story follows a chess competition during the Cold War. It’s loosely based on some chess icons, and draws heavily on the Cold War atmosphere of the day. Everything is Capitalism vs. Communism. Even the choice of chairs the players will sit on has to be negotiated.
But while this is the backdrop for the tale, things get more personal. Florence (Nina Waters) a Hungarian who is now an American citizen, is both ex-lover and chess second (a bit like a coach in this case) to an egotistical American chess star Freddie (Dean Winter). On the Russian side, Anatoly (Greg Bosworth) finds his lack of freedom stifling. It isn’t long before Florence and Anatoly fall for each other. The game is further complicated by Anatoly’s wish to defect to the U.S.
Nina Waters was fantastic both vocally and emotionally as Florence. While she understands vocal and emotional connection and was at her best during duets, I would have liked to have seen more of an emotive history behind her connection with Freddie. She was a genius at instant connections, at establishing a rapport in the present, but I felt that we needed more than the script gave in this case.
Her duets with Greg Bosworth as Anatoly were captivating, but she and Kristen Conley (as Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana) were magical. Conley deserves as much credit for her outstanding performance as Waters does.
It was Bosworth’s first solo that really pulled me into the play. His solid performance as the conflicted romantic lead, both in his vocals and acting, set the tone.
But the hardest job went to Dean Winter, as the spoiled American chess player. He’s a character we aren’t supposed to be enamored of, but I found Winter’s Freddie a tad too insufferable and a little less charming than I would have liked. Still, he had an interesting take on the part. There’s a tonal maturity to his tenor performance that made me want to hear more of him.
Winter did seem to have problems hitting some notes during ‘Pity the Child’ in the second act, but it’s a PHENOMENALLY difficult song (so much so that the song’s nickname in theatrical circles is ‘Pity the Singer’). Even so, he was spot on with the emotional text of the song, and that was far more important in this case.
I must mention Vincent Teschel as Freddie’s opportunistic and slimy agent, Walter. It’s clear he understands comedy and the importance of physicality in a part. His body language and default stance told us everything we needed to know even before he opened his mouth.
Molokov, played by Lukas Cyr, is Anatoly’s Russian handler (though he has the title of second) shifts through likable manipulation and a calculated gruffness. While he plays to Russian stereotypes, the actor makes the part his. His mixture of threats and verbal massage are reminiscent of a union negotiator.
The Arbiter, sung by Anesha Hines, is also worth a mention. I was impressed by her presence and vocals.
Speaking of presence, I found that Daniel Prill’s skill as a lurker in the role of the “ever-present-even-if-you-don’t-see-him” Nickolai to be unsettling, as it should be.
The ensemble as whole was excellent, but Maggie Moore’s voice caught my ear during brief solo.
The cast changes, with alternate cast members filling in on different days for the main roles (Freddie, Florence, Anatoly, Sventlana). The Chess I saw may very well be different than the Chess you see. I do think that no matter who you see onstage, you’re going to love the pop-rock score and the fascinating story. JU has a talented batch of performers.
You can see Chess either at the Florida Theatre or at Jacksonville University’s Swisher Theatre.
It will be at the Florida Theatre on April 9 and 10 at 7:30 pm. There will also be a showing on April 11 at 3 pm. Proceeds from the April 10 show benefit the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.
The show will also be held at Jacksonville University’s Swisher Theater on April 16 and 17 at 7:30 pm. Tickets at the Florida Theater showing are $18.50 (Adults) and $13.50 (Student, Senior, Military). To order tickets, call 355-2787. The Florida Theatre box office is open from 9 am to 5 pm weekdays and for two hours prior to all performances.