Review: ‘Chess’ @ Theo Ubique

Courtney Crouse as Freddie strategizes his next move in Theo Ubique’s “Chess.”

Theo Ubique doesn’t shy away from a challenge. To prove this, they’ve staged Chess — the biggest ’80s rock musical* in the history of ’80s rock musicals — in their rickety, ramshackle venue: the aptly-named No Exit Cafe. (Seriously: I hope a fire never breaks out during a performance. “Catastrophic” comes to mind.)

(*Not counting Carrie — though I’d give my eye teeth to see this group stage that show…if they could get the rights.)

So, Chess. A show that hasn’t been staged in Chicago since 1990, when the Marriott Theatre did it shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union. (Who knew the Marriott Theatre used to be so topical?)

For those familiar with the show, Theo Ubique is doing the 1988 Broadway version, which completely reimagined the hit 1985 West End “rock concert” concept that starred the effervescent Elaine Paige and Murray Head. For Broadway, playwright Richard Nelson was brought in to take the insanely popular Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson score and build a book around it — i.e., develop the plot. While most people prefer the original 1985 concept album with Paige, I’m partial to the Broadway recording, due to Judy Kuhn and David Carroll’s gorgeously sung performances.

However, while I enjoy the Broadway cast recording, maybe I’d prefer the West End “rock concert” staging. The plot of this “Cold War Rock Musical”, about a romantic triangle between two players in a world chess championship and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other, is muddled, sluggish, and, well…lame. You don’t care about any of the characters, and the second act revelation that sends Florence (the earnest Maggie Portman) into a despair spiral arrives way too deep in the show — and by that point ambivalence has set it.

But the music? Sublime!

Theo Ubique works with what they have, and works it hard. If you ignore the weaknesses in the book and just go along for the ride, you’ll enjoy yourself considerably. A rocking five-piece band is stuffed in the corner, wearing black shirts and white ties, and keeps that disco beat pumping. The wonderfully versatile ensemble of four works overtime. In the leads, Portman, Jeremy Trager (as Anatoly — the Russian) and Courtney Crouse (as Freddie — the American) all service the score quite well. And I just love that crazy, nearly non sequitur Arbiter song (performed with robotic precision by John Taflan, complemented by director/choreographer Brenda Didier’s angular moves.)

The main thing lost when doing such a small production of a musical originally orchestrated for a cast of 40 are the sumptuous choral arrangements — which are plentiful in Chess. While all the vocal lines are represented (I believe), the mix is unbalanced — especially when you have the tenor singing directly into your left ear, while the soprano is at the far right side of the room. The result is a very different sounding Chess. And that hit song “One Night in Bankok” suffers a bit when the five people singing it are also dancing their faces off.

But kudos to Theo Ubique for taking on this challenge. Is there nothing this group can’t (or won’t) do?

“Chess” plays through April 25 at the No Exit Cafe. Go here for more information >

3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Chess’ @ Theo Ubique

  1. Great review. I didn’t think the Broadway version was available for performance, as I know nearly everyone involved has gone back against it (the current version done is based more on the nearly full sung West End original sith some changes–Soviet Machine, Someone Else’s Story–as I’m sure you know that was the version done in concert and filmed last year, and while still a flawed show, it’s probnably the best possible version. All that stuff with Florence meeting her “father” etc added for Broadway just muddles things more…)

  2. […] 1) Big ideas and tight spaces: The storefront scene is the driving pulse of Chicago theatre. In these odd, tight, usually uncomfortable spaces, there are some rather epic ideas told in bold, resourceful ways. You want to see a highly experimental play about president Lincoln’s struggle with depression told by middle-school children? You got it. You in the mood for a storefront production of an 80’s megamusical? Sure thing. […]

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