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.
Here’s a cool project: In Ansel Adams’ Footsteps, re-creating his photographs of UC Irvine from the 1960s. There are a lot more trees now. (Or, as a friend pointed out, the trees that were there are a lot taller!) It’s a really impressive look at how the campus has changed…plus it’s always fascinating to look at Ansel Adams’ photography. I remember when I was in college, prints of Adams’ photos lined the walls of one of the Student Center hallways.
A couple of years ago I did my own then and now project — well, less a project than a spur-of-the moment 2007 re-creation of a 1997 photo I took of the Student Center as seen from what was then the Humanities Office Building (now Murray Krieger Hall). In this case the trees hadn’t changed much in 10 years, but UCI had flattened the Student Center complex and built an entirely new one.
We went to Wayzgoose at UCI on Saturday, which meant getting our annual taste of what’s changed about the college campus. I’d caught the new Student Center last fall, but Katie hadn’t been back since last year, before it was finished.
Some of the meeting rooms buried in the hill still remain from the previous building. In a food court next to the bookstore, I found a window looking down on this familiar-looking atrium.
Through the glass paneling is a stairway that leads up to the ring road entrance. Clone Copy and Clone Notes used to be on the lower floor to the right (off-camera). In the mid-1990s, the area below the overhang to the left was a pool hall whose name escapes me. I think they converted it to a study area when they remodeled the upper floor to create Zot Zone (which has since been demolished and relocated). The area where I was standing used to be an outdoor walkway connecting the main courtyard to the bookstore.
What was really odd was the west food court, where my brain kept trying to overlay the old layout even though I’m sure they ripped out and replaced that section of the building entirely.
The sad thing, though, was that they’re tearing up the large grass area in the middle of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and putting in another building. Everything in the quad bordered by the Claire Trevor Theater (formerly the Village Theater), the Studio Theater, the scene shop, Studio Four, and the drama offices is a big fenced-off area of dirt.
Aside from the usual uses for a lawn, it was a great place for people to rehearse. It’s not clear how much of the fenced-off area will actually be turned into a building, but they may have finally finished paving the entire school.
I found it a rather ironic discovery to make at this time, considering that Wayzgoose/Celebrate UCI is also combined with Earth Day.
I drove out to UCI on my lunch hour, and got my first view of the newly-completed Student Center. There are actually some parts of the building left over from the previous one, but the whole exterior is new. Then I remembered a photo I’d taken of the old Student Center, back when I was attending the school, from the top of what was then the Humanites Office Building, now Murray Krieger Hall. Since I had extra time on parking, I decided to see if I could match the shot.
Here it is 10 years ago:
UCI Student Center: Late afternoon, 1996–1997
And here it is today:
UCI Student Center: Early afternoon, October 4, 2007