Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chess (The SOB Review) - The Hennepin Stages, Minneapolis, MN

Chess (The SOB Review) - The Hennepin Stages, Minneapolis, MN

**1/2 (out of ****)

What happens when a not so good show happens to exceptionally good people? Well, in the case of the Minneapolis Musical Theatre's current production of Chess, you end up rooting for the players in spite of the material.

Make no mistake, this contrived 80s musical from Tim Rice, Richard Nelson and ABBA alums Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus is far from perfect with its boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-for-girl, boy-tries-defecting-for-girl, boy-gives-up scenario. Almost laughable is its determination to bring intrigue and love to a Cold War Chess competition between an arrogant American and tender, romantic Russian who falls for his nemesis' galpal. Yet, with the breathtaking array of talent overflowing on this tiny Minneapolis stage, I was struck by the sheer honesty and pipes of its remarkable cast.

In the role of Russian chess player Anatoly Sergievsky, Thomas Karki excels in one of the most genuinely heartfelt performances on stage this year. And what a spinetingling voice! Karki's Sergievsky opens a rare window into the heart and soul of the oft-maligned Russian people. Karki deserves to be seen by a wider audience, although I hope that day will come via better material.

There are other noteworthy standouts in this surprisingly large cast. The gorgeous, big-voiced Emily Brooke Hansen is Sergievsky's love interest Florence Vassy; Hansen rivals Céline Dion in delivery of one heartbreaking tune after another. Joseph Bombard, as American chess champion manager Walter DeCourcey, not only sings with a gifted comic voice, but has acting chops to match, as well as with some of the most wonderfully expressive eyes around that make you forget this show is drivel.

I'd be remiss not to mention the sizable talents of Marissa Joy Selvig as Sergievsky's estranged wife Svetlana -- who's brought to Bangkok to plead for the Russian to come back to the Soviet side -- and Michael Jurenek as Sergievsky's keeper Alexander Molokov.

But is all this exceptional talent enough to lift this musical to the stratosphere? Sadly no. There are some near-misses like Tim Kuehl's abbrasive American Freddie Trumper, who fails to deliver in the tuner's most widely-known song "One Night In Bangkok," along with a few of the score's high notes.

Yet, I couldn't walk away from this production's noble attempt to rise above Chess' dubious material with anything but admiration. Under the notable direction of Steven Meerdink, they've succeeded in elevating a sub-par musical to the status of net-plus.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
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At 18 November, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The play would have been much more well-performed had it been carried out in the British version, rather than the American. The British one was so much subtler, less obvious, pulling at the heartstrings that much more. The American version goes too far commercial, and fails for trying too hard.

At 18 November, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

While the program notes of this production mention that "Chess" is now produced by regional theatrical companies, sometimes merging elements from both the London and New York versions," it does not specifically state which version this actually is (although it does list the credits for the Broadway production).

At 19 November, 2006, Blogger Erica said...

Chess is an interesting show in that way - there are some great songs despite a sometimes contrived plot (You and I, Heaven Help my Heart, I Know Him so Well) I also prefer the London to the New York Version.


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