Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's review of A Little Night Music

(foreground) Alice Johnson, Zac Bushman,
Jeremy Yampolsky, Nick Hambruch, and Josh Hengst

Photo by Jason K. Walz
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre seems to have found fortuitous timing for their current production of Chess. Not only has the centuries old game at the center of this musical recently found new interest, most likely due to the TV mini-series "The Queen's Gambit," which focuses on a female chess prodigy and which was a huge hit last year on Netflix, but also the current war between Russia and the Ukraine, which has seen a chill in relationships between the United States and Russia, ties in directly to the plot of the show, which is a metaphor for cold war tensions between the two countries. While there are about a half dozen great songs in the show, and the leads and some of the supporting cast in this production are all excellent, it's just a shame that the musical is somewhat a mess, underwhelming, and a major misfire from its well-known creators.

The plot is fairly simple and is centered around two chess grandmasters, the American Freddie Trumper and his Soviet rival Anatoly Sergievsky, and a love triangle that arises when Trumper's Second, and his presumed partner, Florence falls for Anatoly. The chess match is in two parts, with the first part set in Bangkok, Thailand, and the second part in Budapest. Florence was born in Hungary and separated from her father in 1956 when she was only 4 years old during a rebellion. Raised in America, Florence has a possibility of finding her long lost father when the match location moves to Budapest.

Chess, featuring music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, and lyrics by Tim Rice, first appeared as a concept album before premiering in London in 1986, where it had a relatively successful run. However, there wasn't much dialogue in that production and when it came to Broadway a new book was created by Richard Nelson. Many of the songs were moved around, some were dropped, and new ones added. While the new book adds much more interest and intrigue to the show, at three hours long, it's a complete slog fest, with multiple new plot elements that are interesting but also many that remain vague.

What isn't clear in the plot is why Florence and Anatoly fall in love so quickly and why he decides to defect, especially since he has a wife and family back in Russia. There is also a lot of intrigue in the second act, some of which works, but a lot that doesn't. Many of the songs, including the two breakout hits from the original concept album, "I Know Him So Well," and "One Night in Bangkok," along with "Nobody's Side," "Pity the Child," "Anthem," "Heaven Help My Heart," and "Where I Want to Be" are exceptional, as well as the one great song written for the Broadway production, "Someone Else's Story," but there is also a lot of music that is tedious and boring. It's also very odd that there is never a duet for Freddie and Anatoly, especially since the majority of the plot focuses on the chess match between them, and why, in the revised script, Florence has been made into a much larger character than either of the two men and Freddie is almost reduced to a supporting role.

Director Chris R. Chávez has had success in the past with another flop musical that went through several alterations, Carrie, as well as one that touches upon dramatic situations, Next to Normal, but even he can't do much to breathe life into this clunker of a show. Fortunately, Chávez has found a group of talented actors who are able to sing the crap out of this pop/rock score under Ken Goodenberger's skillful music direction. Rick Sandifer's set design is fine, with the stage floor painted to look like a chess board, and Mickey Courtney's costumes are character and period appropriate.

Alice Johnson perfectly projects the determination of the strong-willed Florence who is put off by Freddie's brashness and finds herself falling for Anatoly's charms. Her bright, strong voice sounds great on her many songs, and she manages to create a fleshed out, three-dimensional role even though the script doesn't give her much help with that. As Anatoly, Nick Hambruch's beautiful, clear voice sounds gorgeous on his solos, and he and Johnson's duets are lovely. Hambruch also instills Anatoly with the right amount of anguish, which makes both his uncertainty about defecting and his reaction to his bad moves in the chess match seem natural and realistic. The final scene he has with Johnson is also wonderfully acted and sung by both. Zac Bushman is brooding, brash, bold, and perfectly pompous as Freddie. His solo, "Pity the Child," is infused with anger and hurt, and is incredibly powerful. It's just a shame that the script doesn't give his character much room to grow or more to do.

In the supporting cast, Christina Clodt is very good as Svetlana, Anatoly's wife. She isn't in much of the show, which is a pity, but Clodt does a great job in making us see that Svetlana realizes Florence is a better partner for Anatoly than she is. Her duet with Johnson, "I Know Him So Well," is perfect. As Anatoly's second, Molokov, Josh Hengst is perfectly sleazy and appropriately imposing, with great stage presence and a fairly good and consistent Russian accent. Casey Karapetian is good as Walter, the financial adviser for Freddie who has some secrets of his own, and, while it's a small role, Jeremy Yampolsky does good work as the Arbiter, with a fun solo that opens the second act.

While the leads are all fantastic, and some of the ensemble are skilled dancers, there are also a few ensemble members who are often out of sync with the rest of the cast dancing the varied choreography by Ruby Wagner, which is also somewhat uneven and doesn't always work with the songs (having a bit of tap dancing in the pop/rock "One Night in Bangkok" is terribly odd.)

Chess is one of several beloved musicals that have impressive scores but very weak books. Because of the familiarity with the various concert and cast recordings of the show, I'm sure theatres will continue to put it on, even as they struggle to make sense of it. While Desert Stages' production has great leads and a talented director, even they aren't able to secure a checkmate for this production.

Chess runs through March 20, 2022, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets and information are available at or by phone at 480-483-1664.

Director: Chris R. Chávez
Music Director: Ken Goodenberger
Choreographer: Ruby Wagner
Stage Manager: Ryan Bowman
Costume Designer: Richard "Mickey" Courtney
Set Design: Rick Sandifer
Lighting Design: Kitty Katz
Sound Designer: Kenseye Fort
Props: Ally Baumlin
Hair & Make Up Consultant: Christina Clodt

Florence: Alice Johnson
Freddie: Zac Bushman
Anatoly: Nick Hambruch
Svetlana: Christina Clodt
Arbiter: Jeremy Yampolsky
Molokov: Josh Hengst
Walter: Casey Karapetian
Gregor: Henry Male
Nikolai: Rudy Bogojevich
Young Florence: Ava Seidensticker/Charlotte Mikalsky
Ensemble: Falin Ossipinsky, Jessyca Jacobs, Joe Jacobs, Bailey Gorman, Raymere Carter, Kirsten Orrahood, Courtney Jacobs, Savoy Antoinette, Maria Bain, Kennedy Czyz, Alexandra Palmatier, Matt Snell, Tyler Snell, Salem Stolworthy