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Davis, California

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Preview: Chess, the Musical

Nicki Padar / AGGIE
Nicki Padar / AGGIE

The Davis Musical Theater company prepares for fourth production of Cold War chess match musical

Upon contacting Steve Isaacson, the Davis Musical Theater Company’s (DMTC) co-founder and director of the newest performance of 1980’s Chess, the Musical for an interview, he insisted I receive a full tour of backstage and free tickets to the upcoming show. Not only did I discover the hospitality of the theater company, but I witnessed the warmth and passion put into the show, all the way down to the light set-up.

“At the start of Act Two, which takes place in a church, I have 70 LED candles [as the lighting], so when the curtains open up it looks beautiful,” Isaacson said. “I don’t want to tell you too much, but I’m so proud of the show.”

Chess will run at DMTC through Dec. 4 and marks the fourth production of the show by DMTC. According to the DMTC website, “the story involves a romantic triangle between two players in a world chess championship, and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other.”

“It is an extremely powerful story,” Isaacson said. “The story involves Americans and Russians and is so significant now. The show was relevant when it was written in the 1980’s when the Berlin Wall was about to come down, but the current political climate and our head-butting with Russia is a perfect set-up for this show. But that’s not why we chose it; it sells very well. It just happened to fall into place, but I wish it didn’t.”

However, the Russian-American dynamic of Chess has been intrinsic in production.

“The [costume] concept is chess,” Isaacson said. “The Russians are in black and the Americans are in white. As Florence, the American chess second, falls in love with Anatoly, the Russian chess champion, her costumes move from a light grey to a grey palette. His goes from a black to a dark grey.”

Dramatic and serious musicals are not necessarily characteristic of DMTC, however.  

“DMTC does a lot of light-hearted and old, standard musicals, so Chess brings a new-ish show to the area and one that is not produced very often,” said leading actress Ashley Holm, who plays Florence. “It’s not a happy show. It has its light-hearted moments, but it’s more of a dramatic show than what DMTC usually does […] I’d like to say it is one of the better productions I’ve done at DMTC.”

The show begins with a battle in the prologue and ends with a “big twist that is not in every production of the show.”

“Every rehearsal I’m crying, and the audience is going to be in tears by the end of the show,” Isaacson said.

Rehearsals for the show have been going on for six weeks, but have had some complications.

“We recently had to make changes because the guy who is playing Molokov, the Russian chess second and KGB agent, tripped over a set piece and shattered his elbow and has to get surgery. We had to call someone to step in,” Isaacson said.

Adjusting to the difficult music has also been a challenge in rehearsal.

“The first couple days of rehearsal were a little rough for me musically,” Holm said. “Some of the melody lines clash completely with the music so it is hard to find your place. You have to know the music really well to be confident with it. It is some of the hardest music I’ve had to learn since I’ve never done a show with this sort of rock-style to it. It is definitely different among musicals.”

With lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA (Mamma Mia), the show stands on its own musically.

“The music is very powerful, and the way it affects the cast is the way it will affect the audience,” Isaacson said. “ABBA is actually really good. Songs from ‘Mamma Mia’ are the typical ABBA songs, and there are definitely a couple songs that you’re like ‘oh my god, that’s ABBA.’ Sometimes, though, you’re like ‘these are the guys from ABBA? This is incredible!’ Some standout songs are ‘Anthem,’ You and I’ and ‘Endgame’ which is the big finale.”

For first-year art history major Audrianna Escobedo, who plans to see the show, the various aspects of music in Chess are what make the the musical stand out.

“The music is kinda like Phantom of the Opera crossed with rock,” Escobedo said. “Since the show is based during the Cold War, Russia is like the formal classical music, but America is like the 1950’s rock. It all works even though they are so different. It’s become more common for musicians that are more pop-culture to write music for musicals. It think it is an extra way theater people can be creative that can bring more people to the theater. People might know ABBA and come for them even if they don’t know the show.”

With an intense, dramatic show ahead for DMTC, the small local theater is confident about the success of the performance.

“I try to make the show about the actors, the lights, the set and the costumes,” Isaacson said. “I can’t do what they do on big stages, so I try to do it with talent.”

For tickets to Chess, the Musical visit www.dmtc.org.


Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org


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