Performing Arts

Slow Burn Theatre takes on the challenge of ‘Chess’

In the four years since it launched with a production of Bat Boy, Slow Burn Theatre has steadily built a reputation as a company that tackles and conquers a whole range of musicals, from well-known to seldom-staged fare.

Its fall production of Next to Normal earned 10 nominations for South Florida’s 38th annual Carbonell Awards, which will be presented March 31. That’s the most for a single production, including work done at companies with longer histories and greater resources.

Slow Burn’s latest daring move is Chess, the rock opera with music by former ABBA band mates Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice and a scant book by playwright Richard Nelson. The musical, now running at Slow Burn’s home base in west Boca Raton before a transfer to the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, is certainly among the more difficult pieces the company has taken on.

This time, despite some notable strengths and obvious creative passion, director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, music director Manny Schvartzman, the cast and design team battle the material to a draw.

Like several Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, Chess began its life in 1984 as a concept album. The stage show became a London hit in 1986, but the 1988 Broadway version lasted just a couple of months.

Dense and musically complex, Chess revisits the Cold War in the guise of a world championship match between bad-boy American grandmaster Frederick “Freddie” Trumper (Rick Peña) and his Russian rival, Anatoly Sergievsky (Matthew Korinko). Prepped and urged on by their seconds — the Soviet schemer Molokov (Elvin Negron) is allied with Anatoly, while Hungarian-born beauty Florence (Amy Miller Brennan) is with Freddie in more ways than one — the men meet for a contentious match in the Italian town of Merano.

After Freddie resigns, Anatoly is declared the victor, and though he has a family, he defects and starts a new life with the equally smitten Florence. A year later, Anatoly faces a Soviet opponent at a championship match in Bangkok. But the past comes calling in the form of Freddie, now a TV provocateur, and Anatoly’s estranged wife Svetlana (Carla Bordonada), charged with getting Anatoly to throw the match. The story’s endgame leads to unexpected shifts in alliances.

For Slow Burn’s high-concept production, set designer Sean McClelland employs several over-sized chess pieces, moveable boxes and platforms painted to look like marble, and a pair of video screens. Peña, doing double duty as the costume designer, has dressed the actors as though they’re patrons of a futuristic leather bar, and a few of his choices are noticeably unflattering.

Fitzwater fills what could be static chess matches with dancing “pawns,” but some of his choreography is overly busy. He and Schvartzman get powerful vocal work from the chorus, though ConorWalton has more visual presence than musical firepower as the Arbiter. Leads Miller Brennan, Korinko, Peña and Bordonada, as well as Negron and Sean Dorazio as a manipulative TV guy, are all impressive actor-singers. The never-better Miller Brennan and Korinko, in particular, achieve enlightening clarity and vocal beauty in their performances.

Though its score isn’t as familiar as those of many other musicals, Chess contains some gems, notably the hit One Night in Bangkok, Someone Else’s Story, I Know Him So Well and You and I. Still, despite having been revised a number of times, Chess remains challenging for both theater companies and audiences. Kudos to Slow Burn, though, for being devoted to such challenges.