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Pioneer Theatre Company stages a rare concert version of 'Chess'

Published March 6, 2017 6:58 pm

Pioneer stages a rare three-performance concert run of the Cold War-era musical.
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You remember the disco-rap of the hit "One Night in Bangkok," but the rest of the score of "Chess," the Cold War-era musical, is also "earwormy" and terrific, says Karen Azenberg, artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company.

"Chess" features lyrics by Tim Rice, with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA. The show earned international attention thanks to 1984 hit concept album and a long run in London's West End. Azenberg remembers seeing the Broadway musical on opening night in 1988, but admits the book never completely worked.

Yet there's that score. Musical theater directors know of its ongoing popularity because they hear "Chess" songs so often in auditions. "It's got a little edge, it's got guts, and the story is in there," Azenberg says. The music press referred to it as "dazzling" (Rolling Stone), its songs "ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes" (Time).

Those songs will be spotlighted in Pioneer's rare concert staging, featuring an 18-member orchestra. "Chess" will receive three shows Friday and Saturdayat the University of Utah-based professional theater company.

The musical tells a satirical story about romantic and political games played at a world chess championship, where one player's female manager falls in love with the other competitor.

Against our country's rising political tension over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, many of the musical's lyrics and behind-the-scenes-plot twists land with fresh urgency.

The character of the American grandmaster chess player, loosely based on Bobby Fischer, is even named Freddie Trumper. "The sort of timeliness of the subplot of this show is frightening," Azenberg says.

In the song "A Model of Decorum and Tranquility," a character decries how the ancient and distinguished game of chess has been turned into a "battleground for rival ideologies." Another song proclaims: "Never be the first to believe, never be the last to deceive, nobody's on nobody's side."

Geopolitical conflicts aside, "Chess" is remembered for its demanding music. For the men, the score "is tenor-a-gogo," Azenberg says, while the women are required "to belt [their] guts out in keys that are up there."

She praises the vocal talent of the cast assembled at Pioneer, many of whom have sung these challenging roles before. Coleen Sexton, who debuted on Broadway at 19 as Lucy in "Jekyll and Hyde," plays Florence, the woman at the center of the story's romantic triangle. Michael Halling, who plays Russian champion Anatoly, will be familiar to PTC audiences thanks to his role as Enjolras in the company's 2007 regional premiere of "Les Miserables."

Another familiar voice is Weber State-trained actor/singer Ginger Bess, who plays Svetlana, Anatoly's earnest wife. She's returning to Pioneer after spotlight singing turns in "Rent" and in the concert staging of "The Rocky Horror Show."

ellenf@sltrib.com —

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster

Pioneer Theatre Company presents a concert staging of "Chess."

When • Friday and Saturday, March 10-11, 7:30 p.m.; also 2 p.m. Saturday matinee

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25-$40 ($5 more day of show), 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org






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