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By MIKE McINALLY
As Elizabeth Helman and Nick Larson launched plans to stage the musical “Chess” at Oregon State University, this was among the first questions they had to answer:
Which version of “Chess?”
The 1980s musical, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the latter two are better-known as half of the pop group Abba), uses the setting of a championship chess match between an American and a Russian to examine – and criticize – the Cold War between the two countries.
“Chess” opens Thursday for a two-weekend run at OSU. As part of OSU’s celebration of the return of live theater to Withycombe Hall, admission is free – but reservations are required. (See the related story for information about how to reserve tickets and other details.)
“Chess” opened in 1986 in London’s West End, although it first found life as a concept album in 1982. (Two of the songs, “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well,” were worldwide hits.)
But when the show made the transfer to Broadway in 1988, it underwent a dramatic overhaul: A new prologue was added. The show had five new songs. Eleven songs from the London version were dropped. Some of the songs that did survive the transition had new titles. And the show had a completely different second act that crowned a different winner of its critical chess match.
Helman, who’s directing the OSU production, notes that it’s not completely unheard-of for a show to undergo such dramatic changes. And she suspects that some of the changes were meant to appease American audiences; at the time, the Cold War still had three years or so to go until it ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But as she and Larson, who’s the musical director for the OSU show, sifted through the history of “Chess,” other versions kept popping up: For example, there’s an Australian version with different plot points and yet another scrambling of the song order. Helman and Larson ended up purchasing the Broadway version of the show.
Despite the jumbled history of “Chess,” “there are a lot of people out there who have a lot of affection for the show,” Helman said – and she and Larson are in that fan club. When the time came to pick a musical for winter term, the show rose to the top of their lists. And the fact that OSU’s music program currently has a number of students with the strong tenor and baritone voices the show requires was an additional plus.
Helman also likes that “Chess” is a rock musical: “I think this is something very different than what we’ve done previously. … It’s like half a show but also like half rock concert. And so there’s something fun about that.”
But “Chess,” with its Cold War setting that suddenly seems much more relevant today, also tackles weighty issues. “I like the idea that right now, there are heavy things and complicated issues that happen in this show. … There’s a lot of emotional content and there’s a love story and there’s a lot there that’s just fun to explore with these students.”
For the rock-concert half of “Chess,” the production features a trio on stage, with rehearsal pianist Bryson Skaar bringing along his synthesizers and two of his colleagues from the local funk band DTW, drummer Kelsey Bleck and guitarist Erik Crew. “We have them all dressed up like an 80s rock band,” Helman said. “We’ve got them headbanging and there’s lot of 80s hair-band hair flying – they’re in wigs – with headbands and tank tops and chains and glam sequins and everything.” The band even carries a chess-related name: The London System, which is a popular opening for the player with the white pieces.
That devotion to chess has carried through to the cast and crew: Helman reports that many of them have learned the game and spend downtime playing chess on their phones. And Jacob Hungerford and Dylan Lewis, the two actors playing the chess grandmasters who battle in the championship bout, took the time to sketch out the moves that they make when playing on stage: “They are making real chess moves and playing real games” on stage, Helman said. “They were so dedicated to getting it right.”
That attention to detail extends to the sets and costumes, Helman said. Costume designer DeMara Cabrera worked with a carefully thought-out color palette that subtly changes as the play goes on, Helman said: “The play starts and we’ve got the American characters with either blues and hints of blue with grays and blacks. The Russians are blacks and grays and reds but then as the play goes on, you kind of see these two get smooshed together; everyone is shades of gray. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity in the show, as you might imagine.”
Cabrera had fun dressing the ensemble characters In clothes inspired by 1980s fashion, Helman said: “We really wanted to play to the silhouettes of the 80s, kind of the high-fashion ones that really make you look like a chess piece, so peplums and shoulder pads and patterns and things like that. We’re doing a lot here, but I think visually the result looks pretty cool.”
And there’s a story behind the set, designed by OSU Theatre veteran Marion Rossi Jr., an associate dean in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts and the interim head of the college’s School of Visual, Performing and Design Arts. Originally, Rossi was scheduled to direct OSU’s winter term show – but it became evident early on that the duties of his day jobs wouldn’t give him enough time to direct a full-scale musical like “Chess.” So he took on the task of designing the sets for the show – in itself a considerable challenge for a musical with “a million different scenes,” as Helman put it.
The obvious visual signpost for a musical about chess would be a chessboard. But, Helman said, Rossi didn’t want to use symmetrical chessboards, because “part of the story is that the world has become so distorted by the paranoia that’s going on between these two countries during the Cold War.”
“So what we’ve settled on is all kinds of images of fractals, chessboards that are fractals and spiral chessboards and three-dimensional.” And the middle of the set is “like a swirl with a vortex in the center … something that’s very much like a black hole. The tensions between geopolitical powers are always just a black hole of time and energy and resources and lives and we’re trying to show that in the physical space. It’s actually really cool.”
So “Chess” deals with still-potent political and emotional matters. But there’s something else that appeals to Helman about the show: “It’s still an 80s rock musical, and so it’s got this good balance of sweet and salty, goofiness and weirdness, but also real political human issues. I was excited about the challenge. And the songs are catchy.”
What: “Chess,” a production of OSU Theatre and the OSU Music Department.
When: March 3-5 and 11-12 and 7:30 p.m. and March 13 at 2 p.m. The March 11 performance features sign language interpretation.
Where: Withycombe Hall, 2921 SW Campus Way in Corvallis.
How much: The performance is free, but registrations are required. Click here to register or call the University Theatre box office at 541-737-2784.
Cast and crew: Madeline Braun (Svetlana), Belén Bracamontes (Ensemble), Sophie Brown (Ensemble), Caden Buck (Ensemble), Michael Eclevia (Molokov), Steven Evans-Renteria (The Arbiter), Natalie Harris (Ensemble), Jacob Hungerford (Anatoly), Stacie Lillis (Ensemble), Dylan Lewis (Freddie), Cole Pearson (Ensemble), Dmitri Rose (Ensemble), Robert Taylor (Nikolai), Román Vega (Walter), Emilia Veremchuk (Florence). Elizabeth Helman is the director. Musical direction is by Nick Larson. Marion Rossi Jr. designed the sets and DeMara Cabrera designed the costumes.
Of note: OSU’s COVID-19 protocols are in effect and require the wearing of masks in indoor settings.
Photo caption: This scene from “Chess” features, from left, Jacob Hungerford (Anatoly), Emilia Veremchuk (Florence), Steven Evans-Renteria (The Arbiter) and Michael Eclevia (Molokov) performing the song “Quartet.” The musical is playing at Oregon State University’s Withycombe Hall. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Helman.)