Orange County Theatre Reviews

Written by Alina Mae Wilson 

We’re in a politically charged climate and UCI has elected to put on Chess the musical.  While I have heard of Chess, before tonight I had not heard any of the score, nor had I read up on the synopsis–I walked in blind.  Believe it or not I kind of thought it might be in the same vein as the “Putnam Spelling Bee” musical–I was wrong.  So very wrong.  Chess could not be more dramatic if it tried, and it really really tries. 

Chynna Walker in “Chess” Photos by Paul R. Kennedy

The theme of the season at UC Irvine is politics, and how it influences people.  Thus they have put on Chess, a musical originally written to mirror the competitive spirit of the Cold War, but now serving as a more modernized reflection of political relations between the United States and Russian.  Our story begins by focusing on brash, arrogant American Grandmaster Freddie Trumper (can you believe this is actually his original name?) as he prepares for his international tournament against the seemingly more level-headed Russian Grandmaster Anatoly Sergievsky.  Freddie is backed by his second and apparent romantic interest Florence,  while Anatoly is assisted by a government employee named Molokova.  As romance meets business and politics get personal, we get a good look at each character’s motivations and what happens when your loyalty is truly tested by outside forces.

I quite enjoyed the set/ensemble.  En lieu of a backdrop and excessive props, two large flags hang over the stage, and a large choir is assembled on high rises behind the principal performers. Their emotions correspond to the activity onstage, and sets the mood of each scene perfectly.  This is especially useful during the musical numbers, even if some of the fast-paced lyrics get lost before total comprehension, you can understand what is going on in each scene simply by virtue of the people in the ensemble expressing the tone so well.  This is in regards to both vocals and energy, the entire show sounds very nice.

This is a really enjoyable score.  I love the ricochet between pious drama,  and upbeat 80s rock/pop.  The group ABBA did some of the musical work and I am not at all surprised. Whether you are listening to Anatoly (Robert Tendy) pound out “Where I Want To Be” like he’s Javert from Les Mis, or fighting the urge to wave a lighter in the air during Florence’s (Anica Garcia-DeGraff) “Nobody’s On Nobody’s Side”, you will enjoy the music.  There’s a very strong “Disney” vibe with this particular number.  Perhaps it’s the choreography (a group of ensemble stepping and swaying with Florence while she sings out her heart) but I was having serious flashbacks to Hercules’s “I Won’t Say I’m In Love”.  The movement captures you and you’ll be singing along in your head.

As far the script goes, it’s decent. Your attention definitely won’t waver, but I can’t consider this a great masterpiece of storytelling.  None of the romantic plot points are particularly compelling.  Perhaps they were never going to be, but rather than give the characters a clear-cut identity as a couple director Robin Buck opts for some form of weak ambiguity, leaving character motivation undefined.  I honestly don’t know whether Freddie (Aaron Arroyo) or Florence were really supposed to be dating in this incarnation, or if Freddie is just delusional.   Most if not all of the characters are stereotypes, but in a fun way.  Molokova (played by Jennifer Holocombe) is for all intents and purposed a Bond villain. I mean the moment the woman appears onstage in her sweeping  jacket and smoothly plotting the downfall of her enemies in a strong Russian accent, you’ll wonder what devious plans she has up her red leather sleeve.  Not that you’ll have to wait long before she grants you verbal confirmation of your suspicions.  There really is nothing subtle about this character, but you’ll love her just the same.  I’ve been listening to professional albums since that night, and Holocombe remains my absolutely favorite person to do Molokov(a)’s part in the Chess “Quartet”.

Overall this is a fun show. Most of it is strong, there are some weak parts but they are mainly plot related and most of them don’t show up until the end of the show.  For a good score and an interesting show, go to the Barclay Theater for Chess.

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Nov 11 – 18 2017   GREAT SHOW 

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