Commentary - Honolulu version

Jade Stice, Matthew Pederson

The Hawaii premiere of Chess at the Diamond Head Theatre is a virtual duplicate of the Broadway production, moving towers and all. But there the resemblance ends. Nunn's direction was extremely static, Director/Choreographer Andrew Sakaguchi's surges with life, passion and movement. The sets, lighting and costumes on Broadway were drab. Here, they pulse with color and vibrancy.

This production is absolutely the best that the Broadway version can be.

Jade Stice, a Broadway veteran of Miss Saigon and Jekyll & Hyde leads a terrific cast who truly act out their songs. Matthew Pedersen's (also a Broadway Miss Saigon vet) Freddie lacks the viciousness Nunn directed into the part, and becomes a much more likable hero. Guy Merola's Anatoly is a brooding--but needy--Russian, beautifully exhibiting the wrenching indecision of his character in the second act. The chemistry between Ms. Stice and both male leads is electric, making her inner conflict over them the touchstone of the show. She is also beautiful and sultry enough that you truly believe a man would leave his country for her.

The main set is composed of the towers--square this time instead of triangular, and warmer, painted in faux green marble with large colorful chess pieces on them. As on Broadway, they form walls, rooms, underground garages and terraces, but much less obtrusively. The lighting is also considerably warmer and more varied than Broadway. The only set pieces are a bed and numerous chairs and tables, keeping the cast on their feet for much of the show, prowling the stage.

Sakaguchi said in an interview that he wanted to take out the politics and focus on the characters' emotions and to a large extent, he's done that. 'U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.' has been cut way down and 'Merchandisers Song' is gone (both were severely shortened on Broadway after opening, for time constraints), but by having only Molokov sing 'U.S.vs. U.S.S.R.,' without Walter, the song is superfluous and could have been cut entirely. 'Let's Work Together' has also been cut from the second act, though the scene leading into it is not. The humor of this song is sorely missed.

But the 'Arbiter's Song' is fully restored as the second act opening with most of Tom Jobe's original London choreography intact and, as in London, the number brings down the house. By removing the ridiculous Broadway notion of having the character sing it in the Bangkok airport to bewildered passengers (it was cut the week after opening on Broadway), the song works beautifully.

Sakaguchi's choreography infuses every moment with movement and life. His staging of 'I Know Him So Well' and 'Pity the Child' are the best I've ever seen. I've always personally felt 'Pity the Child' was one verse too long, but not here-- Freddie storms around his room, kicking over a chair and at the end, pulls the blankets off the bed and throws them on the floor, exibiting not only his self-pity for his childhood but his frustration at not being able to shake his past from his present life.

Every song has interesting movement. The 'Model of Decorum' Quartet puts Florence and Anatoly together enough, separate from the others, that it telegraphs their growing attraction for each other. They are more physical with each other during 'Terrace Duet,' touching each other frequently, leading more naturally into the kiss.

'Endgame' is powerfully performed, the chorus unison is exceptional and Anatoly and Freddie are in swivel chairs and turn to the audience, involving them, whenever singing.

John L. Bryan as the Arbiter is potent, and both Mikel J. Humerickhouse as Molokov and Leonard Piggee as Walter are just right. It's difficult to single out actors for praise--the entire cast is so good, they all contribute mightily to the whole.

This version added one thing from the Chicago version. Walter tells Florence the man she met isn't her father (though, as on Broadway, it's clear that he is), so Anatoly engineers a final--permanent--reunion at the very end. Since Florence isn't undergoing the angst of total loss as in London and Broadway, the show ends with each principal moving out on stage singing 'The Story of Chess.' A milder ending than the show needs, but in this case, it works.

Interestingly, Nelson's jokes in the show, which were strident on Broadway, seem limp now and the audience barely responded. Chess is always a difficult show for first-timers, the Broadway version especially, and Honolulu audiences didn't seem to really get into the story until 'Someone Else's Story.' From then on, though, they were very responsive. The show played so briefly on Broadway, and London is a long way from Hawaii, so it can be assumed that few theatregoers here have had much exposure to the show.

Diamond Head Theatre has always put on extremely well done musicals and does not fail in this case. Short rehearsal times, a limited talent pool and small budgets never seem to prevent a first class production. They have done it yet again.

© 1991, 2001 - Sylvia Stoddard