The cold-war musical Chess works surprisingly well set in the present day.
UCI Drama’s production is a concert staging of the show, with the orchestra and choir onstage, and the actors carrying handheld microphones with minimal props. It works well, especially for the more 80s-pop numbers like “Nobody’s Side” and the big ensemble songs like “Merano” and the chess games, though it gets a little awkward when the characters are singing to each other with microphones. (The show features two competing styles of music, achingly 80s and classical musical theater.)
The show’s structure is fluid, with vast differences between the original London and Broadway versions and later productions, and just about every version tweaking the story and moving songs around. This version largely follows the London stage version, with a few key changes:
- It’s set in the present day. This updates the USSR to Russia and drops the CIA vs KGB elements of the background game played between Walter and Molokov. Florence is the daughter of Hungarian refugees, rather than a former child refugee herself (Budapest 1956 is the only fixed date in the story.) The political stakes may be a bit lower, but the personal stakes work just as well.
- Several roles have been recast as women, including Molokova and the arbiter, which makes the show even more “alto-licious” (as Katie puts it).
- The second act drops a lot of the connections between songs (it is done as a concert, after all), which means you don’t see the breakdown of Anatoly’s and Florence’s relationship, or Anatoly cracking under the pressure, until he finds his “one true obligation.” You get the before and after but not the process.
The performances were all solid, with Molokova in particular as a standout.
An aside: I found it interesting to see an actual production of Chess at UCI, since the songs had been so popular with the musical theater crowd when I was there in the 1990s. “I Know Him So Well,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” and “Someone Else’s Story” were standards in the library, and I heard them a zillion times, while all the guys who were serious about musicals wanted to sing “Anthem.” And really, can you blame them?
I’m still not sure how well “Someone Else’s Story” works for Svetlana, but that ship has sailed. And “One Night In Bangkok,” despite being instantly recognizable to anyone who lived through the 80s, is cringe-worthy now. For this production they downplay the stereotyping by playing up the fact that it’s seen through the perspective of a total lout (Freddie). It’s still cringe-worthy, but at least it’s a character statement rather than a narrative one.
The production continues through this weekend.
I saw 3D Theatricals’ production of Beauty and the Beast this weekend and really enjoyed it. It was much better than the stripped-down touring version we saw in 2010. Bigger cast, bigger orchestra, more elaborate costumes and sets, and they didn’t cut any of the songs (including the one I kind of wish they had).
Great performances from the leads. Belle was a little more brassy than I’m used to, but it worked. The scenes with her and Maurice at the beginning had a nice geeky-family-hanging-out feel to them. Gaston’s performance actually reminded me a lot of Captain Hammer.
It was interesting to see how they worked around the lack of an understudy for Lumiere. They said he (and the actor playing Chip) had been delayed by a car accident, which may have been one he was involved in, or may have been the multi-car fatal collision and fire that shut down the 5 freeway for the whole day. They pulled an actor from the ensemble who had never rehearsed the part, and while he knew a lot of it, they still had to work around things like the dance steps in “Be Our Guest.” (Belle stepped in and offered to lead.) The regular actor made it there before act two and stepped back into the role.
Incidentally: Chip is a thankless part. You have to sit inside a cart wearing a giant teacup on your head the entire time you’re on stage. Though I’m impressed at what it takes to play Mrs. Potts: You need to hold one arm up the entire time (or else wear a very unbalanced costume on your shoulder, which I can imagine messing up your back), and push that cart around one-handed, with choreography. I hope directors/costumers are willing to adapt the costume for the actress’ dominant hand.
Anyway, it was a good production, and an interesting live-theater snafu. Sadly, I was the only one flu-less enough to go, and it was the last weekend of a short run. One of these days!
It never occurred to me in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast that Belle was giving up her dreams of adventure in the great wide somewhere to be with the Prince Formerly Known as Beast. She gives them up at the beginning of the story to save her father, but by the end, what’s she done?
- Joined a society of transformed humans in an enchanted castle.
- Fought wolves in a snowstorm.
- Held her own against a ferocious Beast and changed him.
- Saved her father’s life and freedom, and the life of the Beast.
- Escaped that poor provincial town (and that boorish, brainless Gaston)
She’s had a big adventure…and now that the prince is human again and she’s cast her lot in with him, she has the resources and freedom to have more.
That’s why I can’t stand “A Change in Me,” the song that was added to the stage musical a few years in. It takes a criticism that I always thought was unfair — that she’s OK with giving up her dreams to be with a guy — and makes it canon.
We took the kiddo to see his first live theater play today, A Year With Frog and Toad. It’s a children’s musical based on the Frog and Toad books, with each song adapted from one of the stories. The costumes in this production tended toward symbolic representation rather than realism. Frog and Toad themselves just wore old-fashioned patchwork suits with green or brown color schemes. Birds had feather boas, aviator goggles, orange tights and yellow shoes. Moles had miner’s helmets and jumpsuits.
That’s something that works well in live theater, but moviegoing audiences want realism. Or studios do. So effects budgets keep climbing, regardless of storytelling quality, as they strive for ever more detail.
The only recent movie I can think of that went for this sort of look was Into the Woods, with the wolf. But everything else in the film went for realism (even Cinderella’s frozen-in-time inner monologue of “On the Steps of the Palace”), so it just looked way out of place. On stage you’d go with it. In another movie you might. But in this case it was just Johnny Depp in a weird outfit. Gee, I’ve never seen that before.
Judy Kuhn sings both Florence on the Broadway cast album of Chess and Cosette on the Broadway cast album of Les Misérables. My recent Chess-listening binge got me thinking about the two roles, how much stronger a character Florence is (at least when looking at the stage version), and how Eponine’s greater degree of agency might explain what makes her so popular.
Of course in the book it’s a bit different: There are hints that Cosette would really like to be able to do more on her own, but as a respectable young woman, she doesn’t have many choices available. Éponine can do more because she doesn’t have to worry about losing her respectability.
Check out the full article, Agency: Cosette vs. Éponine vs. Florence on my Reading Les Misérables blog.