The opening musical of this year's Austin Summer Stock combines two elements that make for strange musical material: chess and the cold war. Following a chess meet between two ambitious young men, one a cocky American, the other a starkly serious Soviet, and the woman who comes between them, the musical takes music by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaes and acclaimed lyricisit Tim Rice to create a very suprising, if bizarre, work. The play manages to balance its characters well, despite having to manage about half a dozen, and though some fall by the wayside, in the end we end up learning more about these characters than we thought possible under these constraints.
In this production, directed by Michael McKelvey, the parts are filled with some of Austin's best performers, including Jacob Trussell, from such musicals as "Sweeney Todd", "Hillcountry Underbelly", and the recent hit "DayboyNightGirl", as the American Freddie Trumper; David Gallagher, star of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jack" and "Evil Dead: the Musical", as the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky; as well as "Hairspray"'s Brian Coughlin and award-winner Joe Penrod. Add to this an amazing young ensemble and some stellar lighting work, and we get a production that brings the material to vibrant life.
After seeing David Gallagher in mostly lighthearted musicals such as "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "Evil Dead: The Musical", it's a revelation to see him playing such a serious and soulful character as Anatoly. While in the past, he's sung in rock star style, he shows he can belt it with the best of them, which is no small task since many people know the role as performed by the great Josh Grobin. His presentation of the song “Anthem” is one of the play's most stunning moments, creating a truly magical and emotional sequence as he blasts out with a voice that few fans knew he had in him.
We shouldn't, of course, overlook his cohort, Jacob Trussell as the young American chess prodigy Freddie, a cocky, arrogant young buck, who Trussell is not afraid to play with all his spoiledness intact. It's a true testament to the actor in question to make himself so detestable, and yet Trussell is always fun to watch, as he shows a real ability to add humor to this annoying young character, bringing out all the worst parts of Freddie in the most side-splitting way.
Though the argument could be made that the two gentlemen in question share the lead role, most would agree that the real star of the show is Florence Vassy, and here she's played by a skilled young woman by the name of Marita Stryker, who gives a show-stopping performance every moment she hits the stage. With her soaring voice and emotive face, her every feeling seeps into her soul, and it's difficult to find an audience member whose heart doesn't drop by play's end, as she belts that last notes into the upper seats. Stryker is a veteran of many musicals musicals, taking on stages all over the country, and that experience is clear the moment she hits the stage for this production.
Let us take a moment to talk about Joe Penrod. He has been working on productions for years in town, and has had several hits around the country, but after his absolutely astounding performance in last year's "Men of Tortuga", he's become one of Austin's most well-respected actors, and here he continues to show a talent for creating very memorable villains. There are very few moments in the play where he doesn't drip menace, a shadow in his eye chilling your bones even while he puts on his nicest smile. His low baritone only helps to accentuate this darkness, making his presence on stage chilling. One hopes that his next role will be a light comedy, as one worries that he may soon become typecast, but when an actor plays evil this good, it's hard to complain.
The biggest surprise here, though, might just come from Philip Kreyche as The Arbiter. Kreyche rose to local stardom after directing and starring in the award-winning production "Love Me" at 2010's FronteraFest, and has since appeared in productions from such major companies as Austin Playhouse and Austin Shakespeare. He's made a recent career out of serious, mostly Shakespearean roles, which makes his role as the suave, cool Arbiter that much more of a shock, as provides many of the pieces biggest laughs, constantly adding levity to the proceedings. It's not necessarily a meaty role, but whenever he comes on stage, the audience can't help but captivated as he prances proudly. Kreyche is an absolute delight here, showing his range as an actor and proving that he's more than just a serious Shakespearean actor.
Chess is a strange little musical, but the cast and crew, led with skill by Michael McKelvey, are able to turn this tangle of material into something quite enjoyable. Featuring absolutely amazing turns from both Marita Striker and Philip Kreyche, as well as fine work from Gallagher, Penrod, and Trussell, the play may not be the strongest of the plays presented by Summer Stock this year, but it's still well worth the price of admission, and makes an amazing counterpoint to the other two works on display.
Chess is playing at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center through August 11th. For a full schedule of when to catch this, and other plays playing at this year's Summer Stock, visit the Austin Summer Stock website at summerstockaustin.org.