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Theo Ubique's Chess: Do It For The Music

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 24, 2010 9:20PM

photo of Jeremy Trager and Courtney Crouse by Johnny Knight
There are a few things you'll have to accept when you sit down at the No Exit Cafe to watch Chess: First, an international chess match taking place during the late Cold War era (the show is set in 1988) can have enormous political consequences. Second, chess players can be proverbial rockstars. Third, and most importantly, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (of ABBA fame) wrote some legitimately good music. Yes, there's a synthesizer involved, but don't let that deter you. Chess has a powerful score, and in Theo Ubique's production, it's sung with commensurate amounts of power.

Loosely (ahem, VERY loosely) based on a 1972 chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky, the plot of Chess goes something like this: Freddie ("The American") and Anatoly ("The Russian") are rivals in an international tournament of champions. Florence, Freddie's "second" and rumored former love/lust interest, falls in love with Anatoly (who happens to be married - minor detail), causing a political mess and torrent of "love is so complicated" pop songs. An issue since the show's inception, it's no secret that the plot is a bit weak. Though it began as a successful concept album (released in 1984) and ran for three years in London (after premiering in 1986), the 1988 Broadway version lasted just two months. No major revival has been attempted since then, and as the program notes point out, Theo Ubique's production is the first in Chicagoland since Marriott Theatre's in 1990. Chess is a difficult piece to sell as complete package, which is why the tiny stage at the No Exit Cafe works to its advantage. Although co-directors Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier have fully staged the show (complete with some odd but fitting choreography by Didier), it feels a bit like a concert version. There is some strong acting (and a little bit of cheesy acting), but the voices, pardon the pun, take center stage.

For the most part, whenever we were distracted by the holes in that pesky plot thing, we were able to refocus on the music. Jeremy Trager's incredibly rich voice carries him through the pitfalls of Anatoly's hopelessly naive trajectory. We liked Courtney Crouse's nuanced portrayal of the outwardly-douchey (the diamond earring is a nice costuming touch) and also naive Freddie, but we loved his "Pity The Child." Although we sometimes wished she'd soften the edge in her voice, Maggie Portman (Florence) has a serious set of pipes that never waiver. Both Anthony Apodaca (Walter, Freddie's agent) and John B. Leen (understated and quietly funny as Molokov, Anatoly's "second") bring huge amounts of personality to their performances, albeit in entirely different ways. Their "Let's Work Together" is just fun. And although Stephanie Herman (Svetlana, Anatoly's wife) has to wait more than half the show for her first entrance, her stately poise and practically-velvet voice make a huge impact. We could listen to her sing for hours. Also impressive was the balance of sound - despite being seated near the band (led by Ryan Brewster), we had no problems hearing anyone.

The story of Chess might be a bit hard to digest, but the good news is, the No Exit Cafe is an actual cafe (in fact, the cast members serve as waiters/bartenders prior to curtain and during intermission). We suggest you grab a drink, sit back and listen.

Chess, through April 25. Tickets $20-$45. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood.