Theater Review: CHESS (Jaxx Theatricals)

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by Tony Frankel on July 2, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


I’m rather certain that most folks in the U.S.A. have no idea that Chicago is one of the best theater towns in the world. The reason for this is storefront theaters, which have given birth to amazing companies such as Steppenwolf. Los Angeles used to have these but, especially with Equity cancelling the Equity-Waiver plan, there ain’t a lot. As with L.A., most companies do not have a production space of their own, thanks to greedy landlords, so producing major shows on a dime is done at (mostly) 99-seat and under venues; how else can a company short on cash (well, ALL theaters say that these days) showcase their work?

Whitney Kathleen Vigil

Well, scrappy but mighty Jaxx Theatricals in L.A. absolutely reminds me of the amazingly well-produced storefront theaters in Chicago. With a passionately mad desire to do terrific work with large casts, Jaxx showed muscle with Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, but their current production of the musical Chess is the iron man of theater. Produced for a short run via the Hollywood Fringe Festival, this awesome revival of one of the greatest, and most troubled, shows in musical theater history, is frankly quite spectacular. It’s also a must-see, as this show is rarely produced.

Jenna Small, Kyler Wells and JesusDavid TorresMorabito

Chess, the musical about two chess tournaments between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, is the 1979 brain child of lyricist Tim Rice, who teamed up with ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus to create the (still) immensely popular 1984 concept album. Since then, Chess has had more variations than moves in a chess game, mainly because there was never a cohesive book to  begin with. The original 1986 London production, which stuck fairly closely to the concept album, was taken over (some say rescued) by director Trevor Nunn after Michael Bennett had to bow out at the last minute due to AIDS. After a three-year run (even with mixed reviews), Nunn brought in playwright Richard Nelson to create a more straightforward book musical for Broadway in 1988, but instead of embellishing the simple story, Nelson completely retooled it and the enterprise became a muddled mess and flopped. Since then, productions from Sydney to Stockholm have been worked and reworked, some blending the Broadway and West End versions and others removing entire songs – the very songs that were responsible for the show being producible in the first place.

Jill Marie Burke

What possible reason could there be for a show’s refusal to die when no definitive version has yet to emerge? The score. In fact, it remains one of the most brilliant, electrifying, original, juicy, complex and astonishing scores ever written. Rice’s lyrics – inspired, crafty and pocked with exposition – are combined with beautiful, soaring melodies in an assortment of musical styles which never feel like a pastiche: Italian Opera (“Merano”); Gilbert and Sullivan (“Embassy Lament”); Rock Ballad (“Pity the Child”); Disco (“One Night in Bangkok”); and Symphonic (“Chess Game”). People who hear this masterpiece for the first time often respond with incredulity that they had not been introduced to it before.

Taylor Bailey and Ensemble

The metaphors for chess itself – war, strategy, etc. – is woven through a tale involving politics, romance, and matters of personal honor. The story takes place in the later years of the US / USSR cold war conflict and centers the action on the World Chess Championship showdown between two brilliant players: Freddie, a brash, upstart American who is the current World Champion, and Anatoly, a cool, collected Soviet challenger. Both their fates are transformed not by country or by game, but by Florence, Freddie’s second (think player representative, trainer, and analyst – like the second in a duel). After Freddie throws a temper tantrum in front of an arbiter, Florence meets with Anatoly and the two quickly develop a love affair. Anatoly defects. A year later for another tournament in Bangkok, Anatoly’s wife Svetlana arrives courtesy of the KGB; she is threatened with strife back in Russia lest she convince Anatoly to throw the game. Espionage ensues.

D.T. Matias

Staged by Jaxx Artistic Director Jeremy Lucas, the musical presented last weekend at the Jaxx Theatre on Santa Monica near the 101, was yet again different than what I have seen and heard before. This version, using both Equity and non-Equity actors, is partly the newer concert version (supervised by Tim Rice) that was produced in 2008 starring Josh Groban, while hewing to the original London outing, but contains some changes left over from Broadway. It eschews the over-written book by Nelson, but still retains some of the changes he made in 1988. The addition of a younger Florence, her father and a C.I.A. agent are not in this version (I believe what we are seeing is the licensed version, but I can’t keep up).

Michael Scott Harris and Whitney Kathleen Vigil

The beautiful Whitney Kathleen Vigil plays Florence with heart and conviction – she avoids pop-song yodeling and sticks to character-driven singing; the powerful “Nobody’s Side” is a highlight. The quirky D.T. Matias takes on bad-boy, ill-tempered, enfant terrible Freddy with raw passion, hitting those ridiculously difficult rock-star high notes with seeming ease; he lets you know why “Pity the Child” — which elucidates Freddy’s neurosis — is one of our best theater songs (Matias alternates with Griffith Frank).

Whitney Kathleen Vigil and Michael Scott Harris

The stunning and emotional Michael Scott Harris is Anatoly, who responds to reporters’ questions about his defection from Russia with the resounding “Anthem” — which brought the house to its feet. When Mr. Harris and Ms. Vigil sing “You and I” and “Mountain Duet,” they captured perfectly the unresolved ache, yearning, and torture that comes from a loving yet doomed relationship. The book does not clarify just who Svetlana is, other than the wife of Anatoly, but beguiling Jill Marie Burke‘s interpretation of “Someone Else’s Story” makes us feel as if we know her. (This melodic Broadway-pop ballad was added for the original Broadway run, but it was assigned to Florence; you know it’s a troubled book when a song can be conveniently plucked from one character and bestowed on another).

Bryan Vickery and Jenna Small

As the deceitful second to Anatoly, Bryan Vickery makes slimy intrigue look inviting as Alexander Malokov, Nathanael O’Neal is the drollest Arbiter I’ve ever seen, and Erin Lee Smith is rather cheeky as the mayor of Merano. The air of community theater creeps in a bit with Joe Chiapa who is gorgeous to look at as Walter DeCoeurcey (or “Anderson” in the Broadway script), a member of the American chess delegation and representative of the Global Television news station; but in trying to be wry, he comes off as anachronistically flamboyant. Intentionally or not (I hope it was), the choreography by Mr. Lucas mimicked 1980s-style aerobic moves, which is smart, but the dancers, who play pawns on a board during a symphonic suite, were mostly unstylized, leaving one of the lead dancers, JesusDavid TorresMorabito, to unintentionally stick out.

Jenna Small, D.T. Matias, and JesusDavid TorresMorabito

Since the chess matches are written as being something of a circus, there’s a circus atmosphere to Lucas and Morabito’s costumes, which are mostly shades of black and white, with decidedly sparkly and flashy metallic golds and greens thrown in. But Jeanne-Mare Raubenheimer‘s well-executed make up of glittery face paintings simply stymied me. Colin and Laurilee Tracy’s set had chessboard squares on the floor of the long stage and exploding squares on the tiered playing area in back. With tricky rhythms and shifting meters, Music Director and Conductor James Lent had a lot of work on his hands (or under his hands when playing keys); he and his three bandmates (Tom Zygmont, drums; Lucas Helfman, bass; Alec De Kervor, guitar) are to be commended.

Michael Scott Harris and JesusDavid TorresMorabito

I have yet to see a production when I understood all of the lyrics to “Merano,” the number which introduces us to the denizens of the Italian city where the first chess match takes place. This is no different. However, having Ms. Smith take some lines solo helped. “The Story of Chess,” a diabolically clever way to sing how the game was developed, has been moved to the opening of the show just before “Merano.” While I was blown away that so many lyrics could be understood as the cast remained in constant movement, we still lost too many (through no fault of sound designer Jamie Humiston, who balanced band and singers amazingly well). But Lucas involved moves of chess so well within the dancing that it was a trade-off.

Chess is ultimately a musical about the value of our choices; the chess pieces of our life that we think are vital to success can quickly fly off the board in one swift move. It’s about adapting and making the moves necessary to go forward and make it in life, which is precisely what Jaxx has done.

photos courtesy of Jaxx Theatricals

Jaxx Theatricals
The Jaxx Theatre, 5432 Santa Monica Blvd in Los Angeles
ends on June 30, 2024 EXTENDED to July 14, 2024
for tickets, visit Showclix
for more info, visit Jaxx

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