CHESS: What just happened?

(from L to R:Jeremy Trager, Maggie Portman and Anthony Anthony Apodaca)

While I had never seen the musical CHESS on stage, here are the things I knew about CHESS going in:

1. The music is written by the dudes of ABBA, Benny Anderson & Björn Ulvaues, as a concept album before it was a full production.

2. Lyrics were by Tim Rice, yes THAT Tim Rice

3. the book has gone threw many, many, many versions, this one by Chicago native, Richard Nelson written for the American version that opened on Broadway in 1988

4. The songs are sung by every musical theater performer at endless benefits and auditions around the globe.


5. The rocking One Night in Bangkok hit from the eighties is in this show! I love the eighties! I will therefore LOVE this show!

So with my expectations 1988 high as I walk into Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s CHESS at the No Exit Cafe’ in Rogers Park, I was ready for my Lion King meets the Dancing Queen evening of 80s royalty, and I would not be disappointed.

The set, by Nate Crawford, mimicked the black and white chess board, everywhere. The No Exit Cafe’ is a small cabaret style space where the audience sits at tables with white table cloths and do have the choice to make the show dinner theater if they reserve the dinner package before hand. The waiters are the actors and are mostly dressed in costume while they feed and fetch. I sat at the bar off to the side and skipped the dinner.

Then it begins. Full rock band, tucked off to the side of the playing space. The ensemble enters threw the house singing as they move to the stage. Black and white costumes by Bill Morey echo the set. The origins of the game of Chess are being explained by escaping Hungarians in 1956, or so the program tells me, the script, on the other hand, does not tell me that. Nope. Just dialects and immigrants running from something scary in the night while the father of some child, female, she has a teddy bear, spins some fairytale magic about the game that will be the focus of the night. When running from scary people, shouldn’t we be running and not talking about a game? I’m just saying.

The Book has problems. I mean Prob-le-eh-ehms. No offense to a fellow Chicagoian, but what happens in this play Mr. Nelson? Yes, an international CHESS competition between an Arrogant American, Freddie (Courtney Crouse) and the Soviet Union’s Anatoly, the returning World Champ (Jeremy Trager). Got it. Then there is Florence (Maggie Portman), Freddie’s, coach, or is it “second”? Should Freddie be unable to serve his duties as the US Chess Champ, Florence will take the crown and open super markets across the country? Is that what they mean by “second”? Why is she coaching him if she is his second? Wait, now it seems they had a thing. Like a thing, thing. Some time before the play? They dated? What?

On the Soviet side the second is Molokov (John B. Leen), I think. Or is he just KGB? What is his job, exactly? And then there is the Blonde guy who MUST be KGB. I like the blonde guy. He speaks in Russian and he lets me know exactly what he is saying by how he moves and reacts. Love the blonde guy, I get what he is about.(Travis Walker)

As the play goes, at one of the matches Florence falls instantly in love with Anatoly and Freddie is a jerk, he is just a jerk. Nothing more to him. Yep, oh maybe, nope, just a jerk. Anatoly wants to defect to The States and Walter (Anthony Apodaca), Freddie’s Agent? Manager? Sleaze ball for no apparent reason? is going to help that all go down.

With all the confusion of the book I just wanted something grounded and honest to happen, and it did. Jeremy Trager’s Anatoly is acted to perfection. His choices are so simple and specific, I fall for him and want him to be free. I care about his character, despite the constant confusion. Then he sings. His voice is that of an Opera star and I am completely won over. Maggie Portman is also a mighty force on the stage and she can work a sweet leather coat.

So, it’s about a game, an honored game, a game of intelligence and thought. It’s also maybe about love and freedom. That’s what I understood. The thing I did come out with is that Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier, will not be limited by their small space. While this was not my first production at Theo Ubique, it will also NOT be my last. Even though I did not love the book, the show was still of the highest level I have come to expect from Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre. Next up for Theo Ubique? SWEET AND HOT: THE SONGS OF HAROLD ARLEN June 14-August 18

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