Chess is a complex game.
The musical “Chess,” which opened last weekend at Mount Desert Island High School, also is complex. Set during a cold war chess match between Russian and American chess masters, it involves political intrigue, greed, defection, forbidden romance and fierce competition played out on a world stage.
And like the game, the show demands much of its players, including a score – written by former ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, with lyrics by Tim Rice – that represents almost as many musical genres as there are chess pieces. This includes opera, classic and contemporary pop, jazz, rock, rap, well the list goes on.
Fortunately, Director Frank Bachman has a deep well of talent to draw from this year, with the principle roles played by a quintet of actors who rise magnificently to the challenge of this show – which is basically an opera – and a chorus that backs them up beautifully both vocally and physically in a series of dances that range from Russian folk to mambo, to Irish step to classical ballet.
Mary Paola has perhaps the most difficult challenge playing Freddie Trumper, a role originally written for a man and loosely based on the troubled American chess champion Bobby Fischer. She manages the swagger, malicious energy and sneering disregard for the people who support her, with great conviction. But just when you’re thoroughly enjoying your dislike of this character, she breaks your heart with the song “Pity the Child.”
As her opponent Anatoly Sergievsky, Lucas Wood is required at times to croon a torch song, “You and I.” At other times, he must get his Ozzy Osbourne on and raise the roof with some heavy metal rock. While his voice is best served by the kinder, gentler moments, he delivers it all with great confidence and power.
Both of these characters maneuver around the queen in this musical chess metaphor, Florence Vassy, Freddie’s manager and Anatoly’s love. Mary Ellen Sharp, who plays this pivotal role, certainly looks like a queen – especially in costumer Marilee Marchese’s magnificent black and white gown in the second act. Sharp proves she is a strong enough singer to handle all the musical genres thrown at her and shoulder much of the dramatic tension of the play as well, a truly bravura performance.
As Anatoly’s Russian wife, Svetlana, Thistle Swann is perfectly cast, with her sweet, clear soprano voice. When she introduces herself in “Someone Else’s Story,” you can’t help but fall in love with her, and her duet “I Know Him So Well” with Florence is perhaps the most poignant moment in the play.
Tarzan Munson is the only one who attempts a Russian accent, as Anatoly’s “handler” Alexander Molokov. He does just fine both with his dialogue and in song.
While Jacob Sanner, Emerson Jeffery and Allan Parsons are challenged with the demanding range of their songs – and who wouldn’t be? – they never back off, attacking each tune with full force.
This could be said of all the chorus as well, which not only sings loudly and lustily but joyfully handles the complicated range of dance moves that student Chelsea Schroeder has choreographed. Especially fun is the second act opening number “One Night in Bangkok,” which easily could have been an ABBA hit. Schroeder herself dances a couple of lovely balletic solos.
Bachman’s direction has demanded much from his cast and brought out their best.
The look of the show is magnificent with largely black and white sets and costumes and some excellent tech special effects in lighting and video projections.
The pit orchestra, directed by Rebecca Edmondson, also has to cope with that cornucopia of musical genres and does a splendid job. Because most of the story unfolds in song, they do have to be careful to lower the volume during the few moments when the dialogue is merely spoken.
In the end, it’s all about being thoroughly entertained and impressed by the talents and commitment of our Mount Desert Island High School kids.
Chess has three more performances, on Nov. 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 21 at 2 p.m.