Review: ‘Chess’ at 2nd Star Productions

Photo courtesy of 2nd Star Productions

Chess, the complicated Cold War tale with music by Abba alumni Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by the unstoppable Tim Rice, bursts on to the stage at 2nd Star Productions under the direction of Mickey Lund. Chess has always been an extremely challenging production; even for large companies. The book is unruly. The labyrinthine plot, which tells the story of Russian and American chess players competing to defeat each other in the game and in their love lives, is anything but straightforward. However, you need not be concerned with any of the issues that are baked in to this musical. 2nd Star has delivered a rousing and fast-paced rendition of Chess that you won’t want to miss.

Elizabeth Hester, as Florence Vassy, embodies the vocal bombast that is needed for the role. Her range and style are well-suited for Florence. Her rendition of “Heaven Help My Heart” was gorgeous—so much so that it made me reconsider this song which stood out as a bit weak in the original production versus “Nobody’s Side”—which she also tackled with skill. Elizabeth Hester is a local jewel. The role of Florence is a great showcase of the full range of her talents.

Photo courtesy of 2nd Star Productions

Lee Nicol plays Anatoly, the Russian chess player, with a kind of mournful restlessness that you might expect from a man torn between his homeland and freedom. His rendition of “Anthem” was superb, as was his “Endgame”. His lovely and shunned wife Svetlana, played waif-like but powerfully enraged by Ashley Zielinksi, adds sorrow to this tale with her “Someone Else’s Story”.

Dean Davis as Freddy Trumper, Anatoly’s American counterpart, hits a high point in “One Night in Bangkok”—one of the numbers from this musical to find an audience among non-theatergoers. Davis is wonderful in his ability to balance the anger of Trumper with his private regrets in “Pity the Child”.

The smaller roles were also outstanding. John Rose was perfect as The Arbiter. Gene Valendo (who also designed the set) is a sinister Alexander Molokov. Jason Vellon, as Walter, is appropriately frustrated at having his political goals thwarted by the personalities of the lead characters.

As mentioned, aside from the role of Molokov, Gene Valendo also designed the set. This was done with a great amount of skill since there are so many—pardon my pun—moving pieces. In this case, the chess pieces are represented by the ensemble actors. The set needed to be representative of the settings without interrupting the intense choreography. This was achieved thanks to clever design.

Photo courtesy of 2nd Star Productions

Speaking of movements, Karen Lacy’s choreography was fantastic and really shone brightly. The ensemble’s dances added to the emotional impact of the scenes without detracting from the focus on the main characters.

Fran Marchand and Lura Myers believably took us back to the late 70s and early 80s with their costume choices. Mickey Lund and Garrett Hyde’s lighting design was appropriately moody, even with the restrictions of the smaller stage at Bowie Playhouse. The live orchestra, under the helm of Conductor Doug Dawson, gave life to the score.

Chess—in light of the current tensions between Russia and the United States—is again compelling and relevant. 2nd Star Productions seizes the moment and turns in a potent take on what we are discovering may be a timeless tale.

Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Chess plays through February 16, 2019 at 2nd Star Productions performing at Bowie Playhouse—16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door, by calling the box office at (410) 757-5700 or online.