Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Cool breezes from the newer, quieter fans overhead refresh us throughout this first-rate outdoor performance, and the familiar ritual of going back to the 12,500-seat Muny each summer somehow renews the spirit. I always seem to park three or four blocks east, even when I arrive 35 minutes before show time. But, like new rings around an old tree, the walk carries a little more significance for me each time I go. Later, the little baby-step shuffle (in the crowd), to get in and out of the amphitheater itself, has become oddly humorous.
Despite all my sentimentality for the Muny, I must admit I wasn't actually born here. We arrived in St. Louis during the spring break of 1968, my father seemingly on a quest for an employer who would at last recognize his true genius. But the clash between East and West had already touched my life five years earlier, when I was taught to "duck and cover," along with my classmates, under our desks in kindergarten in Los Angeles County during the Cuban missile crisis. In any case, we all have proud men in our lives. And Tim Rice's story of a noble, pensive Soviet chess master and his brilliant, sneering American opponent (with his own remarkable tale of woe) ultimately makes great powers look very small indeed.
There are only one or two laughs in Chess. But the varied staging, often on a revolving chessboard, and the jaw-droppingly beautiful singing, entirely make up for it. John Riddle is handsome and moody as Anatoly, the Soviet grandmaster, and Jarrod Spector is snarky and rebellious as the American player, Frederick Trumper. Each man scales great vocal heights, as if effortlessly skating up some vertical ice cliff.
The show's only despairing downtime comes in the two minutes spent watching them actually play the game, though it's augmented by Jumbotron close-ups. Much later, the metaphor is fully realized, as the principals are transformed into pawns, and clever chess piece graphics add visual interest to the remarkable final solos and duets. A great graphic representation of the South Tyrol (near Merano, Italy) also revolves majestically on three screens in tandem with the set, as it spins near the end.
Jessica Vosk is outstanding as Florence, Trumper's "second," or personal assistant, whether coaching him or putting up with him as a poor excuse for a boyfriend. She seems to have about a third of all the soaring solos herself and is without peer in putting them over with musicality and lovely soulfulness. The ambitious and intricate music direction is by Jason DeBord. Taylor Louderman appears in act two as Anatoly's abandoned Soviet wife, adding lovely complexity to the pre-existing love triangle between Florence and the two men.
Phillip Johnson Richardson adds meaning and context as the game's Arbiter, and Tally Sessions is forceful and wily as the Soviet handler, Molokov. I never thought I'd see so many grueling psychological entrapments upon the Muny stage. But the whole show flies along thanks to first rate performers, and thanks to clever technical touches throughout.
Chess runs through July 11, 2023, at the Municipal Opera of St. Louis, #1 Theatre Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis MO. Accessible via Metrolink transit in conjunction with the Muny shuttle. For tickets and information, please visit www.muny.org.
Swings: Brady Miller, Emilie Renier
Ensemble: Annelise Baker, Jett Blackorby, Eric Allen Boyd, Sydney Chow, Cicily Daniels, Spencer Dean, Matt Faucher, Anna Gassett, Brian Golub, Omega Jones, Sydney Jones, Gareth Keegan, Sage Lee, Daniel May, Trina Mills, Alysha Morgan, Kristen Faith Oei, Alex Prakken, Shelby Ringdahl, Michael Seltzer, Avilon Trust Tate
Youth Ensemble: Riley Adams, Addison Buckner, Jason Clyde, DJ DeJesus, Olivia DeMaio, Jude Emperado, Luke Ferrante, Noelle Hammond, Alex Malone, Brynn Meyer, Chase Ra'Mel Phillips, Yasmine Ravandi, Henry Riggan, Jameson Roam, Sophie Russ, Ruby Simmons, Regan Thomas, Isla Turner, Micah Webster-Bass
Offstage Singers: Henry Chakes, Ben Iken, Spencer Jones, Trixie Kohlenberger, Aspen Meyer, Rebecca Mooney, Kalia Pagano, Adriano Robins, Victor de Paula Rocha, Katie Beth Terrill, Noah Van Ess, Asher Woodward
Associate Music Direction by: Michael Horsley
Assistant Choreographer: Trina Mills
Assistant Stage Managers: Anna K. Rains, Ashleigh David, Eric Elz