Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slow Burn Theatre Company: Chess (4 reviews)

Slow Burn OnstageSlow Burn Theatre Company opened its production of Chess at the West Boca Performing Arts Theater on March 21, 2014 where it plays through April 5th, before moving to the toney Aventura Arts and Cultural Center to conclude its run April 10-13.
With music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA, and with lyrics by Tim Rice, this story involves a romantic triangle between two top players, an American and a Russian, in a world chess championship, and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other; all in the context of a Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, during which both countries wanted to win international chess tournaments for propaganda purposes.
Patrick Fitzwater directed a cast that included Amy Miller Brennan, Rick Peña, Matthew Korinko, Conor Walton, Elvin Negron, Sean Dorazio, Carla Bordonada, Ann Marie Olson, Kaela Antolino, Kaitlyn O’Neill, Spencer Perlman, Bruno Vida, Elijah Davis, and primary dancers Jamie Kautzmann and Hugo Moreno
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Slow Burn Theatre Company has once again tackled a difficult show that few if any Florida companies would attempt. And once again, it has come out the victor, at least as victorious as any production can be of this work that divides audiences.
Unstinting praise is due Slow Burn director and co-founder Patrick Fitzwater, musical director Manny Schvartzman and a stunningly fine cast for pulling off an evening that had Saturday’s audience cheering in the middle of the show. Some of the renditions surpass any recording or video we’ve heard or seen of these numbers.
The sung-through score has been called a rock opera, but that gives it short shrift. The difficult charts encompass powerplant ballads, pop songs, production numbers, operatically nimble recitatives, intricate chorale pieces and herky-jerky melody lines and rhyming schemes, when it deigns to rhyme at all.
Making it even more difficult is that the subject matter – cerebral and political power games – is not inherently visual and requires a great deal of imagination in its staging.
Fitzwater, as always doing double duty as director and choreographer, once again brings a choreographer’s visual bent to his staging with as highly stylized a tone as Slow Burn has ever attempted.
We’ve delayed spotlighting the ultimate strengths of the production: Brennan, Korinko, Peña and Bordonada.
The pure polished soprano issuing forth from the equally lovely Brennan stops respiration…  Brennan emerges clearly as a reliable reason to see any show she’s cast in. She has a cabaret singer’s vocal agility and a stage actress’ passionate expressiveness. Her performance of the angry “Nobody’s Side” and anguished “Heaven Help My Heart” are unparalleled.
Korinko… brings a quiet dignity to Anatoly – perhaps the only decent character on stage. But it’s his powerful and clean light baritone that overwhelms his scenes, including the Act I closer “Anthem” that is as moving a rendering as I’ve ever heard of it.
Peña… completely inhabits the brilliant, manipulative and abrasive Freddie. His tenor has never been stronger whether in the hedonistic “One Night In Bangkok” or sensitively exposing the damage of his broken childhood in “Pity The Child.”
Bordonada… has a strong piano bar/cabaret background that’s put to good use… when she and Brennan team up for the 11 o’ clock number “I Know Him So Well,” it’s a perfect storm of passion, power and talent.
Props are due the eight-member ensemble who work overtime whether it’s carrying out Fitzwater’s movement or nailing the complex choral numbers for Schvartzman. A bow is due Ann Marie Olson, Kaela Antolino, Kaitlyn O’Neill, Spencer Perlman, Bruno Vida, Elijah Davis, and primary dancers Jamie Kautzmann and Hugo Moreno who execute the pas de deux ballet moves as the chess matches rage behind them.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Slow Burn’s latest daring move is Chess… certainly among the more difficult pieces the company has taken on.
This time, despite some notable strengths and obvious creative passion, director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, music director Manny Schvartzman, the cast and design team battle the material to a draw.
Fitzwater fills what could be static chess matches with dancing “pawns,” but some of his choreography is overly busy. He and Schvartzman get powerful vocal work from the chorus, though Conor Walton has more visual presence than musical firepower as the Arbiter. Leads Miller Brennan, Korinko, Peña and Bordonada, as well as Negron and Sean Dorazio as a manipulative TV guy, are all impressive actor-singers. The never-better Miller Brennan and Korinko, in particular, achieve enlightening clarity and vocal beauty in their performances.
…despite having been revised a number of times, Chess remains challenging for both theater companies and audiences. Kudos to Slow Burn, though, for being devoted to such challenges.
John Thomason reviewed for Boca Magazine:
Director Patrick Fitzwater’s choreography is clearly inspired, and Sean McLelland’s set design, with its mixture of abstraction and literality, is exemplary. The actors’ blood, sweat and tears are self-evident. And yet, I felt no connection to their plight. A thunderbolt (or perhaps, given the subject matter, a nuclear bomb) could have struck any of the characters at any point, and I would feel nothing.
Part of the problem could be that “Chess” is an overambitious gamble of a show... “Chess” thrives on a taxing and chameleonic score from ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, along with some tongue-twisting, complex wordplay from lyricist Tim Rice. There are 23 songs in act one alone (some of them might be called songlets), often requiring actors to transition from singing and speaking and back again, and from wildly different registers without a break. The story itself, which situates Russo-American tension in the context of a love triangle and a chess tourney, is convoluted and dated...
That said, of any company in this region, Slow Burn’s track record of mounting similarly dramatic, operatic musicals with much success suggests that if anybody could do “Chess” justice, it’s Fitzwater and has indefatigable production team. It’s hard to complain about the lead actors: Korinko has the sort of voice that seems beamed from the heavens; Pena injects the right amount of entitled angst into his brash American chessmaster, playing Freddie like a pampered celebrity; and Amy Miller Brennan hits the right notes, vocally and emotionally, as the woman whose changing of allegiances throws the musical’s character dynamics into turmoil. She runs the gamut from defiance to loveliness, her voice shaking the rafters...
Then again, the entire finale was a mess on opening night, a shrill din of voices clamoring to usurp each other, a tower of incoherent babble. Rarely was the sound acceptable, in fact, from the very first notes to the last; any time more than two voices shared the stage, the vocals became incomprehensible.
So it’s no surprise that Slow Burn’s “Chess” is best when the vocals disappear, during the chess-playing instrumentals. It’s here that Fitzwater’s choreography is most innovative, manifesting the process of cerebral chess game through short ballet movements from his talented ensemble, whose pas de deux stand in for the chessmasters’ movements.
I’ve been transitioning this review from positive, present-tense assessments to negative past-tense assessments for a reason. The show’s good stuff will always be good, but I’m hopeful its weaknesses are not permanent, that as the show’s run continues, the spark of connection it currently lacks will eventually electrify the theater (and that the audio problems will mercifully iron themselves out).
Rod Stafford Hagwood was sent by the Stunned-Senseless:
On one side, you have Chess,” a cult-fave-rave with music from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics from Tim Rice being staged by Slow Burn Theatre, a talent magnet of a company based in Boca Raton.
On the other side, you have a musical that is so stout and dense no light can enter it.
It’s all a stalemate. So whether to see “Chess” is your move. But know that the choreography is too ambitious, and the set design has too many competing ideas competing. Combine the two, and the result is a serried mass.
On the plus side, the vocals are powerful where needed and beautifully lyrical where warranted. The cast has a knack, a real gift, for injecting acting into the songs. Like I said, Slow Burn Theatre is a real talent magnet. While the performers supply a deft hand, the show offers an iron fist.
Slow Burn Theatre Company’s production of Chess plays at the West Boca Performing Arts Theater through April 5,  and then plays at the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center the weekend of April 10 - 13.

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