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“CHESS” at American Coast Theater

From Left: Rezia Landers, Josh Martin, Matthew Barge, and Brandon Arias (Photo by Kendra Barnhart)

The classic Cold War rock opera romance by ABBA.

By Bruce Goodrich

“Chess” is a rock opera/musical by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) and Richard Nelson (book), which began as a stand-alone concept album in 1984. “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” and “Tommy” used the concept album technique, as well. “Chess” opened on May 14th, 1986, as a full stage production in London’s West End, playing there for three years.

The American Broadway production, which differed significantly from the original, including Richard Nelson as the book-writer, opened on April 28th, 1988, and played for two months. The show, to this day, has been revived many times. Not only for the enduring popularity of its music and ABBA fan base (“Mamma Mia” and the like), but also for its Cold War era story of romance and intrigue.

“Chess” is set in the 1980s during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Released and staged at the height of the strong anti-communist agenda that came to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine,” the show addressed and satirized the hostility of the international political atmosphere of that time. It is a story about the romantic triangle between two players in a World Chess Championship, one Russian (Anatoly) and one American (Freddie), and the Hungarian-born American woman (Florence) who manages Freddie. The score includes hit rock-inflected songs like “One Night in Bangkok” and “Nobody’s Side” and the ballads “I Know Him So Well” and “Heaven Help My Heart.”

From Left; Rezia Landers and Scott Roberts (Photo by Kendra Barnhart)

For American Coast Theater Company’s Artistic Director, Sue Berkompas, who will be directing the production of “Chess”, the show has been a passion piece for her ever since she first heard the original West End recording in 1986 while a BFA student at the University of Montana. In an era with no social media connection, the album stood on its own for her, and she was struck by its fusion of pop, classical, and rock styles to make a compelling musical theatre piece utilizing “big music and big voices with a pop rock edge.”  

Berkompas researched all three versions (concept album, West End, and Broadway) and felt that the West End version made the most sense in terms of structure and storytelling. “The show is not in-your-face politics; the love triangle is the primary tale. It’s about humanity and people and how greed permeates culture and domination of the helpless. Chess, as a metaphor, is used as a game of trust, with people as pawns to further personal, political, and economic agendas. The central character of Anatoly is not a hero and is used as a ‘pawn’ in a partisan political, black and white, symbolic chess game.” However, Ms. Berkompas made it clear that the musical will not be played on a giant chessboard, as have many past productions. Sizing down to the intimate space of Vanguard’s Lyceum Theater, in scale and scope, has been one of the exciting challenges of realizing this production. A benefit has been being able to focus more minutely on the human story, with an ensemble of 15, including principals, rather than getting bogged down in spectacle and crowds. 

Although, spectacular numbers like the iconic “One Night in Bangkok” will have their share of dazzle, helped immeasurably by talents Scott Cokely, Musical Director, who is re-working the orchestrations for a 6-piece band specifically for this production, Hannah Simmons, Choreographer, a veteran choreographer of many Disney parades and shows, and Sarah Grandpre of CSU Fullerton’s Musical Theatre Program, who will be tailoring the sound of the Ensemble voices.

From Left: Scott Roberts and Josh Martin (Photo by Kendra Barnhart)

In that vein, while the score adroitly mixes musical styles and introduces what has become known as (and is often imitated) the 1980s musical theater/rock opera power ballad, the principal characters’ musical delivery embodies this mix, with Anatoly and Molokov having classical voices, Freddie using a tenor belt, and Florence using what is now coined as a solid ‘Broadway belt.’ 

With Ms. Berkompas’s original passion for the show undimmed by time, this

production, with its talented team, promises to do palpable justice to still-thrilling musical theater material, which uses the background of The Iron Curtain to unfold its passionate story.

Bruce Goodrich is a scenic and costume designer with many NYC, SoCal, and regional credits, as well as being an educator, actor, and writer.  He is the screenwriter for “Mapplethorpe,” starring Matt Smith, developed at Sundance, and directed by Ondi Timoner.

“Chess, The Musical”

American Coast Theater Company

In residence at Vanguard University

55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 

June 6-16, 2024

(714) 619-6424,

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