Review "Chess": Intriguing Story, Talented Singers, Sluggish Pace...Stalemate!

Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre                                   

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In association with Michael James presents


Book by Richard Nelson

Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Musical direction by Ryan Brewster

Directed by Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier

Thru April 25th

Buy Tickets

Running Time:  Two hours and fifty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission


It’s 1988!  Ronald Reagan vs Mikhail Gorbachev.  Democracy vs communism. The wall is up.  The cold war is on.  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, in association with Michael James, presents Chess, a musical about game players struggling for control of the board.   Americans vs Russians.  Freddie and Anatoly are playing a series of matches to determine the world champion chess player.  Behind the scenes, their handlers are strategizing their own moves in a global game of domination.  A married wannabe defector, Anatoly falls in love with Florence, who is his opponent’s second.  Chess is a musical about the games people play for power and love.  Chess has all the pieces for a winning tournament.  The music is by Abba bandmates, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.  The story is intriguing, political power struggles playing out on a chessboard.  There is a triangulation love component for a romantic fix.  Despite the cast singing beautifully, this Chess game doesn’t advance smooth enough for enjoyment.   Stalemate!


The musical numbers are inconsistent.  Two standout songs are Quartet and I Know Him So Well.  Quartet is sung in perfect harmony and dramatic flair by Maggie Portman (Florence), Jeremy Trager (Anatoly), John Taflan (Arbiter) and John B. Leen (Molokov).  Later, Portman duets with Stephanie Herman (Svetlana) in a soulful rendition of I Know Him So Well.  Having a live band is always a nice touch except when it competes with the singing.  Perhaps, it is my seat vantage point but in matches between the band vs Anthony Apodaca (Walter) and Courtney Crouse (Freddie), the band was the reigning winner.  The biggest disappointment is the One Night In Bangkok number.  This is a song Abba-ized for dancing in your seats.  Unfortunately, this version chooses to heighten the dramatic balance by punctuating the first line and mumbling the second.  So, every other line, it’s a ‘hell, yeah, let’s dance’ moment followed quickly by ‘what did they say?’ sit-down stopper.  


There are fun choreographed dance sequences (Brenda Didier), 1980’s flashbacks with gloves, sequins and leather.  Although enjoyable, it might be adding to the sluggish pacing of the show.  The ensemble as reporters:  creative idea vs clunky addition?  Is the razzle dazzle needed?  With so many beautiful ballads, couldn’t Chess just be a simple, concise tale of love and defection?  I got rid of my pink high-tops from the eighties to adopt a more elegant look.   Same story different packaging.  Maybe that’s Chess’ obvious next move.


The bishop pair flanking the queen kibitz the show as “black and white”- James A. and “mediocre Knight out” – James J.


*Chess photographs courtesy of Johnny Knight.



Although No Exit Café is offering a dinner option for Chess, we opt for The Heartland Café, 7000 N. Greenwood.  Our server is initially on her game.  She offers to get drinks and chips and guacamole to start.  We decline the chips but order drinks.  James J. and the server have a face-off over a ginger ale in a bottle vs a fountain drink.  James J. orders the fountain drink.  The server brings the bottle.  Being a good sport, James J. lets the 50 cent up charge slide.  I, on the other hand, am delighted that my Malbec has been served in a Cougar Town glass.  We order from the vegetarian favored menu.  I enjoy the black bean burger with the cornbread stuffing side option.  The black burger is tasty.  I enjoy sampling the cornbread stuffing but it doesn’t hold my interest enough to indulge in it.  Although it doesn’t appear to be terribly busy, it’s difficult to get our server’s attention for the check.  CHECK!  When it arrives, we’re told to pay at the register.  CHECK MATE!  This dining experience is a bit of a patzer!

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