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!