At the time of this writing, it’s been two days since I saw “Chess” this past weekend at West Boca’s Slow Burn Theatre Company and, forgive me, but I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong. I’m fairly certain something did. I’m sorry if I don’t sound more authoritative on this manner, but I’m trying to reconcile the fact that on an individual basis, the company’s “Chess” seems like a resounding success, but as a whole it can only be a seen a failure because, quite frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to end.
Director Patrick Fitzwater’s choreography is clearly inspired, and Sean McLelland’s set design, with its mixture of abstraction and literality, is exemplary. The actors’ blood, sweat and tears are self-evident. And yet, I felt no connection to their plight. A thunderbolt (or perhaps, given the subject matter, a nuclear bomb) could have struck any of the characters at any point, and I would feel nothing.
This is a drastic departure from Slow Burn’s previous, extraordinary productions of its 2013-2014 season, “next to normal” and “Parade,” both of which had me in tears, practically convulsing with emotional attachment. You could argue that “Chess” is a colder and more alienating show than both of those, but there was certainly something missing from last weekend’s opening night—the intangible magnetic attraction that unifies the audience and performers into a singular experience. On this account alone, Slow Burn’s “Chess” was shockingly static.
Part of the problem could be that “Chess” is an overambitious gamble of a show. Set during a Cold War-era world chess championship that pits American chessmaster Freddie (Rick Pena) against his Russian opponent Anatoly (Matthew Korinko), “Chess” thrives on a taxing and chameleonic score from ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, along with some tongue-twisting, complex wordplay from lyricist Tim Rice. There are 23 songs in act one alone (some of them might be called songlets), often requiring actors to transition from singing and speaking and back again, and from wildly different registers without a break. The story itself, which situates Russo-American tension in the context of a love triangle and a chess tourney, is convoluted and dated, recent Russian political provocations aside.
That said, of any company in this region, Slow Burn’s track record of mounting similarly dramatic, operatic musicals with much success suggests that if anybody could do “Chess” justice, it’s Fitzwater and has indefatigable production team. It’s hard to complain about the lead actors: Korinko has the sort of voice that seems beamed from the heavens; Pena injects the right amount of entitled angst into his brash American chessmaster, playing Freddie like a pampered celebrity; and Amy Miller Brennan hits the right notes, vocally and emotionally, as the woman whose changing of allegiances throws the musical’s character dynamics into turmoil. She runs the gamut from defiance to loveliness, her voice shaking the rafters but, it must said, it seemed like she ran out of energy toward the end of opening night.
Then again, the entire finale was a mess on opening night, a shrill din of voices clamoring to usurp each other, a tower of incoherent babble. Rarely was the sound acceptable, in fact, from the very first notes to the last; any time more than two voices shared the stage, the vocals became incomprehensible. And I felt especially bad for Clara Bordonada, whose seemingly beautiful, introductory number as Anatoly’s wife Svetlana was torpedoed by a faulty microphone.
So it’s no surprise that Slow Burn’s “Chess” is best when the vocals disappear, during the chess-playing instrumentals. It’s here that Fitzwater’s choreography is most innovative, manifesting the process of cerebral chess game through short ballet movements from his talented ensemble, whose pas de deux stand in for the chessmasters’ movements.
I’ve been transitioning this review from positive, present-tense assessments to negative past-tense assessments for a reason. The show’s good stuff will always be good, but I’m hopeful its weaknesses are not permanent, that as the show’s run continues, the spark of connection it currently lacks will eventually electrify the theater (and that the audio problems will mercifully iron themselves out). Because what I saw last weekend was the rubber of an impossibly difficult show hitting the road of an impossibly short rehearsal schedule. It may be ready next weekend, but it wasn’t when I saw it.
"Chess" runs through April 5 at West Boca Performing Arts Theatre inside West Boca Community High School, 12811 W. Glades Road. It then transfers to Aventura Arts and Culture Center, 3385 N.E. 188th St., Aventura, from April 10-13. Tickets cost $25 to $39.50. Call 866/811-4111 or visit slowburntheatre.org.