Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Galbraith’

Review – Chess (the Musical) – Union Theatre

February 19, 2013

Chess is a musical with nearly legendary status given its famous parentage (Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba for music and Tim Rice for lyrics) and child (“One Night in Bangkok”). How was it this seemingly blessed show could produce a top forty hit but be a Broadway flop? It was a bit of a mystery. Some people said it was because the topic, of cold war battles fought through the medium of US/Soviet chess games, which just didn’t hold up after the Soviet Union fell; but with some thirty years distance between the original production and now, it seemed like an ideal time to explore the ugly reality: was it just a bad show with uninteresting music? Or was it a work of genius sadly unappreciated in its time? I’d enjoyed the little taster provided at a Blink and You Missed It production: some song with a 4/3 time (I think), driving, unique and strong, the kind of compositional voice I’d rarely heard in the context of musical theater. And, er, well, um, I actually really like Abba. So, er, it was really just a right show/wrong time kind of thing … right?

Well, this is the facts: the Union has gone all out to make Chess the rock and roll musical co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris must have imagined was at its core. The stage has been reconfigured as a thrust, with three or four rows of seats smashed between the brick walls of the theater and the rather overwhelming action on stage. There is COORDINATED MOVEMENT and SIDEWAYS LIGHTING and LOUD MUSIC and the whole thing made me feel like I’d been stuffed into a Donmar flavored custard cream cookie, which was REALLY COOL when I was being glamorized by the really intense everything but at other times just led to some serious show enjoyment problems which I’ll go into more detail in a bit.

The story is freaky, opening with the Hungarian spring being crushed by the Soviets, which somehow makes the underlying human cost of the cold war very tangible. It’s not just different ways of organizing economics, it’s not just a possible nuclear war, it’s people being shot in the streets and back alleys for dissident thoughts and families being used as pawns to manipulate their members. Wait, did I use a chess metaphor? Yes I did, and of course the whole show, of a Hungarian born American woman (Florence, Sarah Galbraith), a slightly nutso anti-Soviet American chess champion (Freddie, Tim Oxbrow), and his Russian rival (Anatoly, Nadim Naaman) is nothing but a game played by … well, not just the US and the USSR, but by the corporate interests sponsoring the chess matches, by Freddie against both Anatoly and Florence, and by Svetlana (the Russian agent, Natasha J Barnes) against pretty much everyone as long as she is able to show a success to her bosses. The whole thing starts to get a little Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy … but then for some reason in the middle of all this is a big dance number, One Night in Bangkok, which frankly just makes it all too surreal for words.

Unfortunately, because of the problems of the VERY LOUD BAND stage right (the side AWAY from the entrance to the theater) and the fact people were frequently singing with their backs to at least 1/3 of the stage, I found it very difficult to follow the lyrics and the occasional bits of spoken dialogue. I’m not sure if this was just an opening night problem, but it was just maddening, especially given that one of the awesome things about the Union is that they don’t have to mike people and you get to hear their unadulterated voices when they sing. Except, this time, I couldn’t, and neither could the guy sitting next to me, and neither could the guy sitting behind me and right in front of the band. It just sucks, because really this show felt so alive and cool and much better than I’d ever imagined a show about chess could be, and Florence was wonderfully heartbroken and determined (and man could she sing) and Freddie was fun and out of control the Arbiter (Craig Rhys Barlow) was all rock and roll. All in all, it was a vibrant production, but I feel like, given the sound quality, I really am not in a place to say for sure whether or not Chess is a good musical.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, February 15th, 2013. It continues through March 16th, although I think at this point tickets will only be available by calling the Union Theater’s box office and praying for returns.)

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Review – Steel Pier – Union Theater

November 14, 2012

This has really been a great year for Kander and Ebb for me. Not only did I get back to see Chicago, but I managed to see THREE shows by them that haven’t been revived in ages – Flora the Red Menace (originally done in 1965), Curtains (the next to last of their shows, from 2006), and, now, Steel Pier (1997). All of these shows were new for me, and I took the same approach for all of them, of not reading up on them beforehand so I could have the maximum experience.

Steel Pier has a fun premise – a bunch of people are gathered together at a dance marathon in the 1930s, trying to make a little money when there was not a lot to go around. Some of the people have been to a few of these things and know each other; first among these is Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith), who has a career singing at small carnivals. She winds up dancing with a stunt pilot (Bill Kelly – Jay Rincon) who’s also shown up partnerless; but, as it turns out, she is actually a woman trying to escape her partner, and the shiftless life she’s been leading. Will this dance be her final turn on the stage? Who is the stunt pilot, really? And why do both he and the MC (Mick Hamilton – Ian Knauer) seem so creepy?

It’s fun seeing these shows in the context of the wide body of Kander & Ebb’s work: the strong women characters and dissonant melodies that are present at the very beginning in Flora; the dark look at life and unflattering portrayal of showbiz that runs straight through Cabaret to Curtains. Steel Pier has a lot of the markers of a K&E work. The dancers aren’t the aspirational kids of a 40s musical; most of them are pros who are on the circuit, out to make a buck, and not above using tricks if endurance is not enough. But the whole thing is a gimmick, anyway, just a way for the MC to make himself some money, attract bigger sponsors through trumped up events, and promote his own favorite on his way to even higher realms of celebrity. In some ways, it’s reality TV 1935, but played out on the radio. Ah, delicious cynicism: I love you so!

As performed, Steel Pier is a showpiece for two side characters: the sociopathic, manipulative MC Mick (with his great “power” duet “A Powerful Thing,” performed with his dupe minion); and Shelby Stevens (Aimie Atkinson) the hoofer with a heart of gold who steals the show with the quite crass “Everybody’s Girl,” providing both the pipes and pins to make this number blaze.

Sadly, I was uncompelled by the rest of the drama: neither the sideshows of the various couples failing to make it to the end; or, more critically, the “romance” between Rita and the pilot. Neither she nor he ever really clicked for me as actors or characters. Both seemed wooden and unbelievable; and while stiffness seemed appropriate to the MC, I needed to feel Rita being torn and betrayed. But I never bought it any more than I bought the pilot with his pasted on grin. He just wasn’t real enough for me to believe he was desperately in love with anybody – he seemed to be sleepwalking through it all, albeit while smiling all the way.

Fortunately, there were lots of great songs and fabulous dancing – no shortage of dancing! – to get us from point A to point B, and while I wasn’t sold by the story, I was definitely wowed by the production. In the intimate confines of the Union, to have this many people singing and high kicking was positively electric, so much so that I feel that complaining about the leads seems almost churlish. And there was certainly magic at times, like during the dream/hallucination sequence “Leave the World Behind.” This show is not perfect, but it’s still a good night out and an excellent value, and I recommend it to musicals fans as well as K&E aficionados.

(This review is for a performance seen on Friday, November 9th, 2012. It continues through November 24th.)