The world loves musicals. Many of them become well-known classics during or after their time, but the musical “Chess” does not fall in with the classics. The University of Utah Musical Theater Program (MTP) decided to take on this lesser known, Cold War-based story, written by “the two composers of the pop group ABBA.” The complex story is about the world chess championships and focuses on the life of Anatoly Sergievsky, brilliantly played by U MTP junior Cameron Holzman. “Chess” is an 80s rock opera, featuring an extremely challenging musical score that a viewer will either love or hate.
Denny Berry, an assistant professor and head of the MTP, directed and choreographed this show. The artistic vision for the show was intriguing and captivating only in a couple pieces. In “The Story of Chess” and “Embassy Lament,” a complex and modern representation of the story was presented quite successfully and artistically. These pieces were brilliantly choreographed for non-dancers and made most of the actors look comfortable on the stage. Unfortunately, when focusing on the actors themselves through directing choices, these two moments are the most redeeming qualities. Besides at the songs previously mentioned, any type of dancing or theater movement in the play was unskilled, rather awkward, and did not match the style of the rest of the show and left a few of the audience members around me giggling under their breath. Granted, the stage was raked for this production, creating a whole new set of challenges for any movement. Much respect should be handed to the student actors for taking on the raked stage.
As for the performance of the leads, most actors gave a decent performance, with solid, ear-pleasing music. The focus on acting itself was lacking immensely though. During duets, there was often a lack of connection between characters, and moments of blocking didn’t provide for eye contact or planned physical connection. Not only was connection and the believity of sharing a story versus telling a story lost, the physicality of several supporting characters was uncomfortable, ungrounded and unsure. Poorly-fitting costumes and the raked stage combined did not help the actors, but working toward professionalism does require getting over those things.
In conclusion, I would not pass up all of the praise available to the tech crew for the show. The lights, sound and set create the most intriguing stage and atmosphere for the audience. With lights underneath the raked stage and from everywhere else possible on the Marriott Center for Dance stage, the tech was unmistakably the best part of this musical production. Not only did the lights blow me away, but the use of a chess board themed set keeps the story centered, themed and easy on the eyes.
If you want something to do on your weekend nights, I would recommend seeing “Chess,” solely for the sake of supporting our local U MTP. Just remember that it is a student production and because of it being the MTP, the music is more important than the acting quality for this show. But if you are amazed by flashy and impressive tech or talented voices, you definitely should take the time for the show. It will not fail to entertain you in some way.
“Chess” is running weekends through Sept. 23. Tickets can be bought ahead of time at Kingsbury Hall in Presidents Circle, or at the door. Be sure to bring your U student ID card to receive a free ticket. More information about the show can be found here.