Review: 'Chess at WPPAC: A Triumphant Reimagination

Adriana Nocco

Chess is a universal, strategic board game that often inspires some friendly competition in households worldwide. It requires skill and understanding, but is usually intended to be an enjoyable activity at its core. However, in Chess the musical, when two chess players happen to be representing warring countries with a complicated political relationship, the nature of their match suddenly becomes explosive. The stakes, all at once, become much, much higher, and winning the match takes on an entirely new significance. 

Before bearing witness to this production at the White Plains Performing Arts Center, I had heard some of the music and read synopses of the plot of the show, but I had never seen Chess before. While I enjoyed many aspects of Chess as a show, I found that, at times, it does not flow well; it feels as if the plot moves in a manner that does not always feel natural. (Let it be known that I am referring to the script of Chess rather than this particular production when I say that). However, the music of Chess is truly entrancing, a real treat for the ears, and, although a bit muddled at times, I found the storyline intriguing, exciting, and suspenseful.

Although Chess is about a world championship chess match, said chess match reflects political tensions; the match signifies so much more than a potential trophy. Chess first came to be in the 1980s, and originally reflected the political tensions caused by the Cold War. However, this revolutionary re-imagination of Chess, directed by Keith Levenson, has been updated to reflect today’s tense, turbulent political climate between the United States and the Middle East. 

Due to the fact that I had never seen Chess before last night, there were most likely many changes made to the original source material that did not register in my mind. But, this reimagination worked well for the most part; it was cohesive, intelligent, well executed, and thought provoking. From my perspective, it did not feel like it was cut and pasted together to make some sort of sense in today’s world (which a much less adapt cast and crew might have done). Rather, it felt as if a great deal of passion, thought, and creativity was poured into the production to create a new show that respects its roots but also revolutionizes the way Chess is presented. Keith Levenson claims that this was the most ambitious project he has ever worked on, and I believe it has succeeded.          

The set (designed by Katie McGeorge) issimplistic: completely black and white surroundings, white, mobile doorways present on stage at all times (which were moved around quite a bit to mark scene changes throughout the show), and a table, a chess board, and two chairs placed center stage.

There was multimedia that was incorporated into the show (images and videos projected onto a screen on the downstage wall); I found it a bit distracting at times, but I also felt that it helped set the scene of the reimagined world of the show and added to the show at times. This set was quite effective; it truly enhances the theme of the show, which is that the chess match being focused upon throughout is symbolic of the state of the world within the musical, and everything that occurs in these characters’ lives is part of one huge, political game of strategy with incredibly high stakes. In the world of Chess, everyone is striving to win for him or herself; “nobody’s on nobody’s side.”        

The show seemed to have a bit of a rocky start and underwent a few bumps along the way from start to finish, but it was clear to me that these bumps could be chalked up to opening night nerves and an incredibly fast-paced (four-week long) rehearsal process. With that being said, I enjoyed theproduction immensely. The Ensemble did a solid job,working together as a group to paint a vivid overall picture of each scene that felt balanced. It possesses strong singers who complemented each other and blended well to create a sound that enhanced the music of the production. However, this production could not have attained its top tier quality level without its absolutely stellar principal cast.

 According to the production’s choreographer, Jennifer Jonas (whose choreography blended into the story rather well), five of the principal cast members had just come off of national tours prior to starting work on Chess, and one had been off-Broadway quite a bit. This does not come as a surprise to me, because the entire principal cast was simply terrific, and honestly, I believe that WPPAC’s Chess possesses one of the best principal casts I have ever seen in a local production. They attacked their songs with powerhouse singing voices and true emotional integrity, and each one clearly possessed serious acting chops. With excellent vocal performances and a tight orchestra, Brent McGee once again provides top notch musical direction here as well.           

Gilgamesh Taggett, who portrays Gary, and Andrew Hendrick, who portrays Farik (both reinvented characters), are fantastic. They are truly impressive singers, and both Taggett and Hendrick are charismatic and at ease on the stage. So Young Jeon as a reinvented Arbitor possesses an easy control over the steely eyed rigidity she has brought to her role and a glare that could put even the rowdiest of people in their place. Allison Butler as another reinvented character named Torry was funny, witty, and calculating all at once. I thoroughly enjoyed each of them.        Last but certainlyand incredibly far from least, Ruby Day as Layla (a reinvented Svetlana), Conor McGiffin as Akeem (a reinvented Anatoly), John Cormier as Freddie, and Amanda Renee Baker as Florence each were absolutely amazing in their roles. These four characters serve as the core of Chess, and when casting these roles, one must surely be even more meticulous than usual. 

Unbelievable singers and actors who are capable of handling complex, struggling, imperfect characters must play them. I believe that Mr. Levenson was spot on when he cast these four; not only did they deliver, but gave 110% to their roles. Ruby Day’s Layla was bitter and sarcastic, but clearly fighting for security and attempting to make the most of the circumstances that life in Iran had handed to her. McGiffin’s Akeem was determined yet honest and sweet, his rendition of “Where I Want to Be” was fantastic, and his scenes with Florence completely drew me in and made my heart melt. Cormier’s Freddie was pompous and arrogant, yet the vulnerability he showed us during an incredible rendition of “Pity the Child” proved that there is so much more to Freddie than that (even though he actively tries to bury his vulnerability and winning at chess helps him to do just that). Baker’s Florence was driven, intelligent, and headstrong, yet has such an emotional depth and complexity to her. Each of these four principals gives an unbelievable vocal performance, and in addition to “Where I Want to Be” and “Pity the Child,” Baker’s “Nobody’s Side,” Baker and Day’s “Someone Else’s Story,” “Endgame,” and Baker and Cormier’s “Florence Quits” were highlights (although every one of these four principals’ songs were impressive). They were engaged, they were committed, they are supremely talented, and I was moved.      

There are two more chances to see Chess at WPPAC this weekend, tonight at 8 pm and tomorrow afternoon at 2 pm, and I highly recommend doing so. Congratulations and bravo to the cast and crew!

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Review: Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party at NY City Center

Adriana Nocco

In my Stage Combat class at AADA last week, my incredible teacher, Dan Renkin, got into a discussion with my fellow students and I about how humans perceive scenes while serving as spectators of theatre and the various types of emotion that are capable of being evoked within said scenes. People perceive theatrical movement in various ways, depending upon which part of the stage the blocking of a theatrical production is set in (let alone all the other factors involved). The same exact blocking could be perceived differently if performed on stage right as opposed to on stage left, according to Dan, and we tested that theory in class.

Since Westerners perceive narrative structures (in books, etc.) as moving from left to right, we (often subconsciously) are affected quite differently by blocking on the left side of the stage than by blocking on the right; it seems that we perceive, say, one person following another towards the left side of the stage as less ominous than one person following another towards the right side of the stage.

So, I am able to recognize the fact that when I saw the opening night Encores performance of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party (not to be confused with LaChiusa’s version) at the New York City Center on July 15th, at the very end of the show, my perception actually became ambiguous due to a specific blocking choice. Queenie (played by Broadway baby and triple threat Sutton Foster) walked straight down center stage with a gun in her hand, facing upstage with her back to the audience, and as the sound of sirens from a police car blared, Queenie’s future seemed unclear to me. This purposefully ambiguous ending, which left the audience in suspense about what Queenie’s fate would be, was rather intriguing to me. In fact, I find Lippa’s The Wild Party to be quite intriguing in general, and was intrigued and more than pleased by the way it was presented by Encores last week.

At the beginning of the musical, spectators are informed that it is the roaring 20’s and Queenie, a famous vaudeville performer with trademark blonde hair, and Burrs, a violent (sexually and otherwise) vaudevillian clown, were happily living together as a couple for a long time, feeling as if they had met each other’s match. However, they are no longer happy; Queenie is now frightened by Burrs’ violence, and when she does not wish to have sex with him, he forces himself upon her roughly and calls her derogatory names. Queenie proposes, “Out Of The Blue,” that she and Burrs throw a “wild party,” so that they can rediscover the chemistry and excitement that they (she) originally felt in their relationship. Burrs agrees, and a wide array of bizarre guests arrives at their house for a night that no one will ever be able to forget.

The Wild Party’s complexity of tone fascinates me, and I felt that the Encores cast replicated it magnificently. Although Queenie claims to be trying to save her relationship with Burrs by throwing a party, she is actually trying to escape the dark reality of her unhealthy relationship with him by doing the one thing she and Burrs make a living doing and know how to do better than anything else: entertaining. The party is, at its core, a performance that has been constructed in order to mask and run away from a sinister truth. However, everyone at the party has an agenda, and Queenie, Burrs, and two other major characters, Kate and Mr. Black, have agendas (some of which are more secretive than others) that involve each other and cause them to become intertwined in a sort of “love rectangle.” As the night goes on, individual circumstances, which are all connected in some way, complicate further and intensify, and drugs, sex, and alcohol make the events feel disjointed and increasingly unclear; everything is spiraling out of control (this is reflected through the disjointed, complex nature of The Wild Party’s songs).

Additionally, audience members learn that there is actually no way for them to be sure of how well Queenie and Burrs actually know their bizarre, mysterious party guests, which plays into the artifice of the entire situation (entertainment as escape). The performance ultimately ends tragically, for it backfires and brings Burrs and Queenie (and others who have become involved as well) face to face with their issues: one can only try to escape for so long before the stakes heighten to a point of no return.

Steven Pasquale and Sutton Foster in The Wild PartyProduction images by Joan Marcus

Steven Pasquale and Sutton Foster in The Wild PartyProduction images by Joan Marcus

I felt that the genuineness that Sutton Foster brought to the role of Queenie served it well; this Queenie, try as she might to perform her way out of her situation, could not help but show us her true, conflicted self. She was confident but also uncertain at the same time, for she knew her relationship with Burrs was wrong and felt a strong attraction to a handsome guest her friend Kate had brought to the party, Mr. Black. However, at the same time, she could not seem to shake her feelings for Burrs entirely; there was just something about him that made her tick. Foster’s Queenie’s manipulation of the events involving her at the party seemed to stem from a genuine need to feel loved in a healthy way and a genuine confusion concerning her simultaneous attraction and revulsion towards Burrs. Her Queenie was jaded, but also demonstrated that no matter how jaded she became, her need to be loved and her humanity remained intact.

The other three major players, Burrs, Kate, and Mr. Black, were played by three more unbelievably skilled performers: Steven Pasquale, Joaquina Kalukango, and Brandon Victor Dixon, respectively. Pasquale’s Burrs filled me with disgust, but when I witnessed his vulnerable, desperate, deep sadness, especially during an amazing performance of “Let Me Drown,” he filled me with empathy as well. He possesses an earth-shattering, tremulous voice and some serious acting chops. Kalukango’s jaw-dropping voice and simultaneously playful and tenacious take on Kate made for a fantastic combination, and I found myself constantly looking forward to seeing and hearing more of Kalukango throughout The Wild Party. Her renditions of “Look At Me Now” and “The Life of the Party” were showstopping; I am definitely going to keep an eye out for her in the future, for she is a performer well worth watching. Last but most certainly not least was Dixon’s Black, whose vocals sent chills down my spine and whose performance gripped and tugged on my heartstrings the entire time. He is a forced to be reckoned with as well. I felt that Ryan Andes’ Eddie, Talene Monahon’s Mae, and Miriam Shor (fun fact: the original Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch)’s Madelaine True were praiseworthy as well; they completely commanded the stage during their numbers, cleverly executed their performances, and were absolutely hilarious.

It is honestly incredibly rare for me to feel that there is no weak link within a cast, but Encores’ The Wild Party’s cast proved to be a rare exception for me. It possessed some of the most consistently phenomenal vocals I have ever seen in a musical theatre production, the acting and dancing was on point, and the entire cast (especially the four major players) was simply unbelievable. I also was impressed by the production’s choreography, clever direction, lighting and sound design, and felt that a production of its caliber could easily be transferred to Broadway based upon quality. (I am actually in awe of and astounded by the fact that it was put together in the extremely short period of time that it was.) Encores’ production of The Wild Party was a triumph, and I feel that it along with the rest of this year’s season of Encores productions has been raising the bar extremely high for future seasons. All I can say is, bravo, and I sincerely wish I could leap to my feet again during the curtain call of this production, but this time as a member of a Broadway audience.

Review: 'MOVE' Live on Tour, Starring Julianne and Derek Hough

Adriana Nocco

Is there ANYTHING that the Hough siblings cannot do? I found myself consistently asking myself this question on July 9th, when I attended a performance of MOVE, the summer touring show that Julianne and Derek Hough headline, at Radio City Music Hall. It thoroughly amazes me that both members of the stunning, charismatic, multi-talented duo are from the same gene pool (correction: multi-million dollar genetic LOTTERY). If they weren’t so likable, sweet, and simply delightful to be around, I feel that it would be tempting for many people to resent how flawless they are; they just have SO much going for them that it’s almost unfair to the rest of the world. Anyway, with that being said, I adore them, and thought that MOVE was brilliant, a ton of fun to experience. 

For those who are not familiar with Julianne and Derek Hough, these exceptional siblings are professional dancers, singers, and actors. On television, they have danced with and choreographed for various celebrity partners as part of Dancing with the Stars’ team of highly skilled dancers/experts, and both have led multiple partners to victory. In fact, Julianne now serves as a judge on the show alongside Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli, and Carrie Ann Inaba. As a singer, Julianne has released two albums, and as an actress, she has most notably starred as Ariel in the 2011 remake of Footloose, as Sherrie in the 2012 film adaptation of Rock of Ages, and as Katie Feldman/Erin Tierney in Safe Haven (2013). She will soon be starring in Fox’s Grease (live) as Sandy.

Derek has won five seasons of Dancing with the Stars (a record), has acted in stage productions such as Footloose in 2006 (as Ren McCormack) in London’s West End, and has done a variety of work in the film world (e.g.: Make Your Move) and on television (e.g.: Nashville) as well. Both siblings have multiple Emmy nominations, and Derek won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography for three routines that he choreographed for Dancing with the Stars in 2013. When it comes to talent and versatility, the Houghs are the mother lode. 

MOVE’s content and structure reflected the Hough siblings’ versatility beautifully. Yes, its central focus was dance, but it also incorporating singing, skits, and even motivational speaking, and all of the above were executed with flair and seeming ease by Julianne and Derek. (The motivational speaking was corny and clichéd at times, but Julianne and Derek are so charming and enjoyable to watch onstage that I did not mind much.) In terms of the singing portion of the show, I felt that of the songs sung by Julianne that evening, her rendition of “Firework” was strongest; it flattered her sweet yet surprisingly powerful voice wonderfully. I also enjoyed Derek’s rendition of “Jailhouse Rock,” complete with pelvic thrusts that would have made Elvis himself proud, and watching him bring an audience member onstage to dance with him during this number was incredibly heartwarming.

Additionally, I loved that certain parts of MOVE caused me to begin to see the Houghs as people that audience members can actually relate to rather than as perpetual and untouchable superstars. At one point, Julianne led a skit that (playfully and lovingly) mocked Dancing with the Stars, and I loved that she took a minute to touch upon how ridiculous and simultaneously lovable Bruno Tonioli is. Soon afterward, she led three male audience members onstage to partake in a silly dance contest, and said jokingly, “I know most of the men have been dragged here by their wives, so I’m going to make things a little more interesting for you.” I also loved that during a break between numbers, Derek spoke to the audience about how when he was young, his mother forced him to attend dance classes even though he complained about it and argued with her at first. However, he ended up falling in love with dancing, and became addicted to performing (this made me personally think back to my own experience falling in love with performing as a child). 

The show contained more styles of dance than I can count on all ten fingers, ranging from tap to modern hip-hop, and the Houghs demonstrated a mastery of each and every one (while wearing gorgeous costumes that suited each style well). In order to be a successful professional dancer, one must be capable of performing a variety of types of dances. I believe it is incredibly rare for people to be equally phenomenal in every type of dance they practice, and the Houghs are two of the few people on Earth who have actually achieved this feat. I am not a dance expert, but I do believe that they are two of the most fantastic dancers I have ever seen in my life. Julianne and Derek’s backup dancers were also unbelievably gifted and skilled, and each and every one of them could keep up with the duo. I loved that their team of dancers possessed a wide variety of body types and personal styles; it was refreshing to see a collage rather than clones, in my opinion. Julianne, Derek, and their dancers also spiced things up by performing high-risk stunts (flips, lifts, etc.); the fact that professional dancers risk their personal safety every single day to achieve aesthetic beauty through their performances is still so astounding to me.

With its huge amount of dance numbers, which flew by in what seemed like the blink of an eye, MOVE proved Julianne and Derek’s versatility within the dance world (in addition to their versatility as performers in general), and the show’s structure allowed it to flow seamlessly as a whole. By the time the show’s finale, a group number set to “Shut Up and Dance,” arrived, I could not believe the show was already over; time truly flies when you’re having fun. I highly recommend MOVE; it is pure, infectious joy, and so are the Hough siblings. If I were a judge on Dancing with the Stars, I’d give it a 10 out of 10 (I can be corny, too). 

Review: “I’d love to love but need to write”: A New Brain at NY City Center

Adriana Nocco

In “An Invitation To Sleep In My Arms,” one of many songs written by William Finn for his musical entitled A New Brain, Roger Delli-Bovi, Gordon Schwinn’s boyfriend, implores Schwinn to spend the last hospital bed-ridden night before his craniotomy by Roger’s side instead of with his pen and paper (attempting to write a song for his stubborn boss). Schwinn wishes to say yes to Roger and comply, but feels compelled to write because he fears that he will lose his mental faculties after the operation and that this might be the one chance he has left to extract at least one song that is truly great from his mind. So, Schwinn replies, “I’d love to love but need to write.”

This seemingly simple phrase speaks to the journey that changes Gordon Schwinn during the course of A New Brain quite well. Schwinn sings it during “An Invitation To Sleep In My Arms,” which takes place during Act 1 (before his operation), but by the end of the musical (after his operation, which proves successful), Schwinn has learned to cherish his loved ones more than ever before. He realizes that his appreciation for them and for life are what will aid him in his slow recovery, and that once his outlook on life is grounded in what truly matters, he will be able to write again. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s A New Brain is largely an autobiographical tale (and cathartic to tell, I’m sure), based on a traumatic experience that Finn underwent. Gordon Schwinn, its central character (William Finn’s character “alter ego”), is an aspiring songwriter who, at the beginning of the musical, wishes to make a difference and be remembered through his writing more than anything.

However, he feels stuck. He is struggling to achieve his “big break” by writing a song for children’s television producer and personality Mr. Bungee (clearly ironically named as such due to the fact that he dresses as a frog while on the air), and is definitely frustrated about his less-than-idyllic situation. Schwinn is working at the piano with his hung-up (yet resigned, for Schwinn is gay) ex-girlfriend turned best friend, Rhoda, when all of a sudden he collapses and hits his head on the floor. An ambulance whisks Schwinn away to the hospital, where he is told that he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain; essentially, he must undergo an operation or risk loss of his mental functionality and possible death. During his time in the hospital, Mimi (his mother), Roger, and Rhoda try their best to support him while simultaneously coping with their own fears and anxieties concerning his situation and its possibly grim outcome; this proves itself to be especially difficult for them the night before his operation occurs. A New Brain is a story of an experience that knocked Schwinn (Finn) down, both literally and figuratively, but more importantly, it is about how he and his loved ones came together to go about picking up the pieces.

At times, the show felt a little bit rushed, perhaps too fast-paced for my taste; I found myself wishing that some of A New Brain’s more crucial moments had more time to settle. However, that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that, with the help of the show’s creative team, William Finn’s emotional truth certainly shone through the story, even during its “over-the-top” moments. For example, in “Brain Dead,” which takes place while Schwinn is in a comatose state after his operation, imaginary, gauze-clad zombies dance around with Schwinn inside his mind. At one point, the song stops short, one zombie drops to the floor (now an inanimate corpse), and two others drag it offstage before the song resumes. Even though this moment was dark and morbid in a way (touching upon the fact that Schwinn could quite possibly die), it made me laugh, and I realized that it exemplified what A New Brain’s intention was all along. The best way to address the grief that we feel during dire circumstances is through laughter, and for me, “Brain Dead” felt like a testament to this universal method that humans use to address and cope with grief. 

On that note, I especially loved the fact that A New Brain purposely blurs the lines between “actual” reality and Schwinn’s reality. I believe that “reality” is a subjective term, and due to the fact that perception is influenced by our individualized observations, thoughts, and feelings, our perception of what is real becomes increasingly and especially unclear during our most emotionally charged and our most trying times. For instance, throughout Schwinn’s time in the hospital, Mr. Bungee (played by Dan Fogler, previously known for his Tony-winning performance as William Barfée in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) appears to him dressed in green attire from head to toe, complete with an ironic frog hat and gloves (and the stage lighting changes to green accordingly during his entrances). Bungee taunts him, symbolizing Schwinn’s struggle to accept the fact that his condition might terminate his ability to write (along with his mental faculties) before he can write something significant. Schwinn is the only person who interacts with Bungee, which leads audiences to believe that this version of Bungee is a hallucination, but for Schwinn, he is a very real being, and Schwinn interacts with him throughout his time in the hospital. This Bungee also leads a song entitled “Don’t Give In” towards the end of the show, and in the process leads Schwinn to come out of his coma and back towards his consciousness and loved ones (signifying Schwinn’s newfound ability to let go of his apprehension concerning his writing and recognize that his writing should be inspired by appreciation for love and life). 

I also love the fact that the lens through which each additional character in A New Brain is presented to audiences is how each one copes with Schwinn’s illness or how it affects their life in some way. For instance, a number sung by Mimi, entitled “Throw It Out,” demonstrates how Schwinn’s angst and seemingly perpetual thirst for knowledge and creative fulfillment has led his own worried mother, in her heightened emotional state, to believe that books are the reason why he is having health issues in the first place. She is deeply protective of her son, but feels restless because she wants something to blame and something to do to help him (even though, as we all know, diseases like Schwinn’s are unpredictable and there is often nothing that anyone can do to stop them from running their course). Ultimately, the situation is simply not within her control, and this frustrates her beyond belief. So, during “Throw It Out,” she throws away all of the books that Schwinn keeps at home, for in these circumstances which cause her to feel helpless, this is all she can do to purge herself of her frustration and feel as if she is doing something that will affect the outcome of her son’s situation. Then, towards the end of the show, a homeless lady named Lisa finds the books on the street and ironically tries to sell them to Schwinn and Roger (after Schwinn has regained consciousness). Schwinn realizes that they are his books immediately and at first desperately attempts to get them back from her for free. But, with Roger’s help, Schwinn accepts the fact that they are “just books” and that, in the grand scheme of things, he can survive without them; he still has love in his life and, thankfully, a “new brain” that he will be able to use to continue his quest for knowledge and creative fulfillment for a very long time.

This particular production of A New Brain possessed an all-star creative team, and definitely had a talented, proficient cast with indubitable chops. For me, standouts within A New Brain’s supporting cast were the always funny, anxious yet unforced Ana Gasteyer as Mimi, Rema Webb, who has a showstopping voice that made me leap to my feet, as the homeless lady, and the hilarious, quirky scene-stealer and fantastic singer by the name of Josh Lamon as the “nice nurse.” However, A New Brain would not have been able to function without a strong core, and I felt that Jonathan Groff as Schwinn was that core. He was uneasy and agitated while somehow also sincere and sweet, and his brilliant yet unassuming acting and vocals lent a sensitivity to Schwinn that made me want to root for him. 

I certainly hope that A New Brain returns to the New York stage again in the future, for an extended run this time. In the city that never sleeps, we definitely need a show that grounds people, encouraging them to stop for a minute, take stock of what is truly important in life, and “love to love.”