The Arvada Center presents Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's smash hit CHESS, playing now through April 15th. Set against the backdrop of a chess tournament, this rock opera uses the game of chess – with all of its power plays, manipulations, and sacrificial pawns – as a metaphor for the contemporary conflicts in love and life as well as global strife and peaceful coexistence. This story follows players and pawns of the chess world during the Cold War and is reborn onstage in this revisioning by Rod Lansberry and David Nehls.
First, I must commend director Rod Lansberry for pulling together the best of all talents for an extraordinary show. When I learned the Arvada Center was going to produce CHESS, I was surprised, mainly because the Gen Zs (we’re past Gen X and Y now, right?) coming up behind my generation really have no historical reference for the Cold War, outside of maybe a breezy mention in an American history class. So I figured the themes explored in this show no longer held relevance, especially for younger audiences. Leave it to Mr. Lansberry to prove me wrong! This story, like the game of chess itself, is a timeless masterpiece unbound to one era. On some level, I wish they had flat out said that in the beginning of the show, before trying to subtly whip out a cell phone halfway through, which garnered startled murmurs from the audience. But here’s the thing – Lansberry's vision for CHESS is not to tie it down to the Cold War and its specific time and place, but rather let this story translate into any time period. Hence the cell phones and the purposeful mentioning of “Russia,” NOT the “Soviet Union” or “USSR.” The more contemporary hair and clothing styles also speak to a more current time frame. The most impressive thing Lansberry does, though, is the meticulous blocking of Act I. Every single, subtle move conducted by the cast members is a deliberate, conscious representation of a chess move, moving just one square at a time, and with great forethought and strategy. Pure genius. The rules change, however, with Act II and the devastating defection of Anatoly. "Everybody's playing the game, but nobody’s rules are the same. Nobody's on nobody's side!" This scene left me breathless.
Let's take a moment to talk about the talented tech crew. Scenic designer Brian Mallgrave has given us some brilliant and thought-provoking designs in the past, but this is his best yet. Full of symbolic squares everywhere – seriously, everywhere – and equipped with mirrors, a moving catwalk, and two sweeping staircases (as well as a couple of other surprises that will not be mentioned here), this is one of the most innovative and complex sets I have seen from this gifted designer. I was in stimulation overload, too, thanks to the talented Misters Welch and Stevens(Jacob and Steve, respectively), whose lighting design and sound engineering (respectively)
offered a multisensory experience that lingered heavy and sublime long after I left the theater. And it’s obvious costume designer Clare Henkel thought this production through. It shows in the details – from the monochrome costumes in Act I (very representative of the colors of CHESS) to the Act II Bankok costumes that are appropriately colorful and sexy, to the way the actors move with and within their costumes. Another nice symbolic touch – the more color, the more the scenes seemed to awaken, and vice versa. Uber-clever choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck is lovely – the introduction of the talented and versatile ensemble with the sheiks and the Story of Chess is a highlight of the production, along with the spectacular choreography of the numbers British Embassy and Soviet Machine. Ms. Hilsabeck further impresses with the construction of
a human chessboard, wherein the ensemble demonstrates the game of chess as something graceful and poetic and One Night in Bankok was sexy and fun!. Musical director Devid Nehls did a fantastic job finding truly amazing voices and drawing out their talents for this challenging show. It was fun to see him (and the rest of the band) rocking out onstage.
Now let's talk about this stellar cast. Lisa Karlin as Florence Vassy (who, at certain angles, possesses an uncanny resemblance to Patti LuPone) was fabulous. Karlin's vocals positively soar in Heaven Help My Heart and Nobody's Side. Her duet with Svetlana in the classic I Know Him So Well is a musical stroke of awe. Tally Sessions is stunning as Anatoly Sergievsky. I admit that I have a bit of a man-crush on Sessions’ voice and I’m blown away by his incredible vocal range, but believe me when I say with zero bias whatsoever that he totally nailed Anthem with his stirring rendition of this deeply affecting musical number. His You and I duet with Florence is also something to behold. Sessions is spot on with his accent and never once falters throughout the show – a testament to his professionalism and the benefit of practice. Megan Van de Hey once again impressed me (and the audience) with her keen interpretation of Svetlana Sergievsky. This is more of a subtle role for Van De Hey, but she exudes a magnetic energy onstage that is hard to resist. Her renditions of Someone Else'sStory and I Know Him So Well are not to be missed. Sydney James Hartcourt as the Arbiter exudes sexuality and is highly engaging. He had the audience at One Night in Bankok, and his performance of The Arbiter is outstanding. Stephen Day has some obvious fun with his deliciously devious role as Alexander Molokov. His wily ways really come through in his version of The Soviet Machine. Colin Alexander is marvelously backstabbing and sleazy as Walter de Courcey, and Gregg Goodbrod is impressive as Frederick Trumper. I always thought this character was one of the flattest and unremarkable, but Goodbrod’s immense vocals (high notes so high you’ll need a ladder!) have changed my mind. Excellent job with Pity the Child!
So this is what happens when everything goes right in a production. Creative set/lighting/sound/costume design + talented ensemble + fierce vocals and choreography = check mate and game won! This is one of the best shows I have had the pleasure of seeing at the Arvada Center. So strategize your evening, ally with a babysitter, and hold your position! CHESS is capturing audiences now through April 15th. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 720-898-7200 or online at www.arvadacenter.org.