Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Danni Smith as ‘Florence’. Photo by Andrea Beschel
For musical theater die-hards (like myself), Porchlight Music Theatre’s concert reading of CHESS—a three-night-only engagement as part of the Porchlight Revisits series—is simply delightful. CHESS debuted in London in 1986 (which is the version that Porchlight has chosen to stage, in its Chicago premiere) and then was retooled, rather unsuccessfully, before moving to Broadway in 1988. This obscure musical, with lyrics and book by Tim Rice (though where the latter’s concerned, there’s not much to speak of) and music by Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, provides a great concert showcase for some very talented local Chicago actors. This sublime concert staging proves a logical vehicle for CHESS, which has an immensely complicated score but remains fuzzy plot-wise.
Briefly, CHESS concerns two world champion chess players facing off in the Cold War era of the 1980s: the American Freddie Trumper (Adrian Aguilar) and the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Justin Adair). Adding to the intrigue? The men are caught in a love triangle with the Hungarian Florence Vassy (Danni Smith, in her Porchlight debut); she’s Freddie’s devoted lover at the show’s start, but it gets thorny from there.
Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber (with music direction by Jimmy Moorhead) leads an ensemble of talented vocalists who deftly handle the complexities of Ulvaeus and Andersson’s score, making CHESS an auditory delight. Aguilar gamely handles the vocal demands of Freddie’s part, while Adair appears to float into every note effortlessly as Anatoly. Smith’s vocals are absolutely stand-out as Florence, and she adds considerable dramatic chops to the role as well. A sizeable ensemble joins the leads onstage, with a quartet comprised of Max DeTogne, Sierra Naomi Nibbe, Andy Robinson, and Genevieve Thiers skillfully leading the way. Britt-Marie Sivertsen (who played Violet in Porchlight’s fall production of SIDE SHOW) has a lovely second act turn as Anatoly’s abandoned wife, Svetlana. John B. Leen and Daniel Riley add some humor as Anatoly’s righthand man Alexander Molokov and the television personality Walter de Courcey, respectively.
Though the vocal talent abounds in Porchlight’s staging, it also makes clear why CHESS did not thrive on the Broadway stage. While the score is incredibly complex, Rice’s lyrics largely seem a bit more surface-level. A clever number on the Arbiter (an amiable and assertive Brandon Moorehead) has him declaring, “Oh, I’m the Arbiter/I know the score/From square 1, I’ll be watching all 64.” While “Nobody’s Side,” a song led by Florence late in the first act, has her singing “Everybody’s playing the game/But nobody’s rules are the same.” The lyrics are perhaps not the most inspired, but the overall effect of the ensemble’s delivery is delectable. And Brenda Didier’s sly choreography insightfully adds to the drama—and intersperses some fun physical tricks.
Overall, Porchlight Revisits…CHESS can handily declare checkmate. It’s a thoroughly fun concert staging and the vocal and acting abilities of Weber’s ensemble abound.
Porchlight Revisits…CHESS, presented at Stage 773, runs through May 5. All tickets are currently sold out.