‘Chess’ at Kensington Arts Theatre

Rock musicals have engaged audiences in the US and abroad for over 50 years. Coming to prominence in the late 60’s the genre hit its stride in the 70’s and 80’s with classics like the Rocky Horror Show, Evita, and Little Shop of Horrors. Coming off his epic hit Evita lyricist Tim Rice joined forces with ABBA members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson to create the rock musical Chess. The original version premiered with critical success in the UK, but the creative team decided that the show needed some new life for American audiences and brought in book writer Richard Nelson. This version has had decidedly less success garnering a 2-month run on Broadway, but has picked up a cult following of sorts citing is very original and complex score. Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT) with Director Lisa Anne Bailey decided to bring new life to the later form of this decades old musical with a very talented cast. The book leaves something to be desired, but the music is remarkable and worth a trip to the Kensington Armory this spring.

The ensemble of 'Chess.' Photo by John Nunemaker.
The ensemble of ‘Chess.’ Photo by John Nunemaker.

KAT is known for their beautiful and creative sets and this one did not disappoint. Set Designer James Raymond with Set Painting Designer Lindsay Maiorano have created a stunning display with geometric shapes and striking pillars, chandeliers perfectly placed across the proscenium creating a radiant sparkle across the stage. It was quite magnificent.

Costume Designers Courtney James and Nick Carter matched the design quite well utilizing the same color scheme when adorning their players. The most beautiful of costumes belonging, of course, to the leading lady, Florence played by Teresa Danskey. Danskey was outfitted in a gorgeous coat, with just the right amount for sparkle in the first act and a well-fitting dress and jacket in the second.

Director Bailey used simple movements to construct her staging with Choreographer Cathy Oh, the simple yet sufficient dance sequences of her ensemble. The famed “One Night on Bangkok” was one of the stand-out visuals of the show, where simple movements made for a beautiful display by the ensemble. Significant praise should also be given to Music Director and Conductor Scott Richards who skillfully directed the cast and orchestra through this rough terrain of this rock inspired score.

Since the plot was so lacking in substance it was hard to sympathize with many of the characters. However, this was not so for two of the supporting characters, the put upon and discarded wife of Russian chess champion, Anatoly Sergievsky, Svetlana played by Nina Jankowicz and Florence’s father Gregory Vassy, played by Rich Shegogue. Both of these actors got the most of their featured roles. The most engaging moment of the entire evening for me was the meeting of Florence and her father after many years apart, singing “Father’s Lullaby.” Dry eyes were hard to find in the house after that scene.

Praiseworthy performances were easy to find amongst the leads. Their voices were incredible across the board. American chess champion Freddie Trumper, played with boyish charm by Randle Dunkle had an amazing tenor rock belt! One of his most goose bump inducing songs had to be “Pity the Child” where he not only showed his vocal range, but displayed some vulnerability which we hadn’t seen much of in Freddie before this song.

Freddie’s nemesis Anatoly Sergievsky was played by Ward Ferguson. Talk about an amazing singing talent! Ferguson had a smooth baritone voice, but when his belt came out it took the house down. He closed out the first act with the song “Anthem,” and this proclamation of his love for Florence – regardless of the political consequences – was dazzling!

Finally, we have the confidant and 2nd of Freddie turned lover to Anatoly, Florence Vassey (Teresa Danskey). Danskey was exquisite and stunning on stage, with little time off stage in this nearly three hour musical, it is a triumph to get through for any actor and Danskey shines.

 Freddie (Randall Dunkle) and Florence (Teresa Danskey). Photos by John Nunemaker.
Freddie (Randall Dunkle) and Florence (Teresa Danskey). Photos by John Nunemaker.

One of the patrons left saying “Damn that girl can sing” and I unquestionably agree. Two of my favorite moments had to be when she was joined by Nina Jankowicz in the song “I Know Him so Well,” which is definitely one of the best constructed songs in the score, and it was performed handsomely by the two ladies. The other favorite moment was the aforementioned meeting with her father, it was just beautiful.

Rounding out the featured cast is the Arbitor played by Garrett Matthews, Ivan Molokov played by Christopher Overly and Freddie’s agent, Walter, played by Quinn McCord. All are talented singers in these perspective roles. Matthews and Overly are joined by Danskey and Ferguson in the aptly named “Quartet,” which was one of my favorite songs of the evening.

And kudos to the Ensemble: Jason Damaso, James Maxted, Dean Reichard, Megan Evans, Constance Genter, Maria Ciarrocchi, Amy Winter, and to Peyton Rydzewski, who played Young Florence.

Musical talent abounds in Kensington Arts Theatre’s awesome production of Chess. This talented cast deserves sold out houses. Now it’s your move to buy your tickets to hear this popular score sung by a glorious cast of singers and played beautifully by a superb group of musicians.

Running Time: 3 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Chess plays through May 30, 2015 at Kensington Arts Theatre performing at Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets call the box office at (240) 621-0528, or purchase them at the door, or online.

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