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Concordia Theatre Season Finale: “‘Chess:’ In Concert”

Maddie Malat.

After a theatre season filled with drama and laughter, the Concordia Theater Department is back with their 8th and final production of the year: “‘CHESS:’ In Concert.

“CHESS: In Concert” was first performed in London in 1986 as a rock opera to tell a story of the Cold War through the lens of a Chess match.

The musical was nominated for many awards including a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 1988.

Written by Tim Rice, the musical was originally supposed to be based on the Cuban Missile Crisis, but ended up taking a different turn and was finally based loosely on the longstanding chess rivalry between Soviet Russia and the United States, and more specifically, the 1972 Chess Match of the Century between American chess player, Bobby Fischer and Russian chess player, Boris Spasskey.

This Cold War Era musical originally set in the 1980s, but in modern day for Concordia’s production, follows the story of a politically driven chess match between Freddie Trumper from the United States and Anatoly Sergievsky from Soviet Russia. Through family struggles and lovers’ quarrels, the importance of human relationships is found in the most unlikely of places: a chess match.

Directing “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” for Concordia’s production is Bryan Duncan, director of campus lights and light design for the Concordia Theatre department. This is Duncan’s first time directing since he was in college, studying technical theatre and English at Concordia. For a few years now, he has wanted “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” to premiere at Concordia.

For someone who is used to working behind the scenes in the tech department, it has been an adventure to take charge and direct a production, according to Duncan.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy to be on the other side,” Duncan said. “One of the things that makes it a lot simpler is that it is a concertized version of the show… It’s really a case of the music is there first and then the tech comes around that and the direction is down the list. I am more of a producer, production manager more than I consider myself a director for the show.”  

Duncan wanted to direct “CHESS” or at least bring it to Concordia because he remembers how enthralled with it he was when he saw the production in London.

“I was able to see ‘CHESS’ on a May sem in 1988 in London in the original production, and I was always kind of a techy kind of guy and so it had a huge rotating chess board that spun around and lifted up and down and all these video screens and so I was just kind of enthralled with that and I loved the music,” Duncan said.

Now at Concordia, every year when Duncan and the theatre department sat down to talk about what to do next year, he always brought up “‘CHESS:’ In Concert.” Most years everyone said no, but this year when Duncan volunteered to direct, “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” was approved.

The cast for “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” has been rehearsing since the beginning of February. Senior Kyle Stengel plays Anatoly, the Russian chess player, and he really enjoys the chess analogies that play throughout the production.

“What I love is the deeper you dig into the text and into all the music and lyrics is how relevant the chess analogies are, because everyone is a pawn and you don’t know whose is on whose side and what purpose each person move is in the grand context in everything that is happening,” Stengel said. “There are some key people who are moving a lot of the pieces in the whole game, but the main characters are kind of the people being moved around and we have some control but there is a lot of manipulation of us that we realize but what can you do?”

Maddie Malat

The whole set is also set up as a chess board, while the characters make a play on words to further push the chess analogy.

“The story has to be told by us through our acting and through word emphasis and how we say things,” Stengel said. “There is a lot of attention to detail where where you can’t just get up there and sing. You have to actually portray what is happening in a major way, because you don’t have a lot of those elements that usually help you.”  

When talking about his role as Anatoly, Stengel delves into how his character is one of the pawns, victim to manipulation.

“A lot of the premise and the issues, kind of the drama revolved around my character in the fact that I’m involved in this love triangle,” Stengel said.

Stengel’s character, whom is married, falls for his American Chess opponent’s second (a hired assistant to prepare the opening moves of the player and to research the opponent) and while that causes a lot of issues, it is what Russia intends to happen to hopefully ease political tensions between Russia and the U.S..

Stengel’s lead role in “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” is his first role in a Concordia production since he participated in theatre in high school. Stengel’s parents actually met while in Concordia theatre and so he has always wanted to be in a production, but it just never worked out timing wise. Now, in his senior year, Stengel’s friends nudged him into this production and he has loved every minute of it.

“I’ve always liked to act because I get to sing,” Stengel said. “There isn’t much dialogue in the show, so I get to act in the framework of singing.”

Junior Logan Barat plays the role of “cocky and arrogant” Freddie Trumper, the American chess player, and this is his first mainstage role. Barat said his character couldn’t be considered the nicest person. As the world chess champion from the United States, Freddie is in it for the money, power, fame and attention and he will do anything to get what he wants.

“I’m all about manipulating these people like you would a chess board,” Barat said.

“‘CHESS:’ In Concert” requires coordination between a wide variety of students across campus. In addition to the cast, the entire Kantorei choir is required to participate as part of the chorus, along with members from Symphonia Orchestra for musical accompaniment. “CHESS” is one of Concordia’s more complex shows this year because of the need for extra work and coordination between the cast, chorus and crew.

Duncan approached Dr. Michael Culloton, director of Kantorei, about 14 months ago to talk about doing a concert version of “CHESS” and having the music department be a part of it.  

Culloton thought participating in “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” would be a great opportunity for his freshmen choir. He has noticed that several students in Kantorei have a past of theatrical drama from high school and he finds it fitting they get to participate again in college. Additionally, Culloton realized that in the second semester Chapel Choir gets to go on tour and Concordia Choir is touring and then goes to Germany. So, Kantorei deserved a chance to be a part of something special as well.

“I know it is during a tough time of the semester, but I felt like when this idea was presented to me, we are a a liberal arts college and all our students in Kantorei next year will have the opportunity, within the same calendar month, to premiere Rene Clausen’s ‘The Passion of Jesus Christ’ and do a concert version of a very secular broadway musical,” Culloton said. “It just felt like yes, that is the opportunity we should be giving our students here.”

Symphonia Orchestra decided to join the collaboration between theatre and the music department when Assistant Professor of Symphonia Jane Capistran was approached a year ago by David Wintersteen, director of theatre and assistant professor.

“He was interested in doing this collaboration, with Bryan Duncan as the director, and they probably wanted to find out if Symphonia would do something like this because our orchestra doesn’t have as many commitments as the Concordia Choir and we had done some pop concerts in the past and so, it was a nice fit,” Capistran said.

Symphonia received their music for “CHESS” at the end of fall semester and have been rehearsing ever since. As the accompaniment all the way through, Symphonia is playing a huge part as far as orchestration, the color and as the  the “rock element” of “‘CHESS:’ In Concert” as well.  Symphonia performs 28-30 songs in accompaniment of the cast and chorus.

Maddie Malat

“It has been a real process to be able to just work through the movements [of the music] and I am proud of [my students] because they have been doing a lot of their own work as well getting through all the repertoire,” Capistran said.

According to Capistran, Symphonia accomplishes a rock-like-feel with Thomas Christiansen, drummer and adjunct professor; Nick Cameron, freshman electric bass guitar player; Connor Lee, guitar player and former student from MSUM and Andrew Steinberg, keyboard player, campus organist and choir accompanist.

“They really have this nice nucleus to set up all of this pulse for us,” Capistran said. “We are still playing a lot of orchestral sounds, but then when you throw that combo element in the orchestra it really gives that rock element.”

Other than playing rock music, the addition of a full orchestra and choir is unique to “CHESS” because Symphonia will not be playing in the pit, but on stage, with the choir stationed behind them.

Symphonia violist and sophomore Jill Kadrmas has been in past productions as a part of the cast, but never has she played in an orchestra for one like this.

“It’s cool to have that other side of things and it’s cool because Symphonia is actually on stage instead of in the pit where no one can see you and you are just kind of the background, but now we are right in the middle of everything so it’s kind of cool to experience it this way,” Kadrmas said.

Playing for “CHESS” hasn’t come easy for Kadrmas because there was not a part for viola originally written for “‘CHESS:’ In Concert.” Jordan Degerness, 2016 graduate who studied composition, had to rewrite the third violin book in alto clef, which isn’t always a good fit for viola, according to Kadrmas. She has to play in a “weird range” and added on to that, playing theatre music has been incredibly more difficult than what she is used to. so

“[Theatre music] changes keys every other measure with weird rhythms,” Kadrmas said. “It’s a lot more challenging than the Haydn and Mozart we typically play.”

Despite her challenges, Kadrmas is excited for the production to come together and she is excited for the audience to see a surprising element of “CHESS” that she did not expect.

“Last night, after the first act, they lower the pit so part of the stage literally sinks into the ground and I was kind of thinking, ‘Why is that?’” Kadrmas said. “And then, as soon as the second act starts, Logan Barat literally gets raised from the pit and he comes up and has this big rap number and it’s so fun.”

According to Culloton, various other departments are involved in the production of “‘CHESS:’ In Concert,” making it one of the biggest collaborations between theatre and other departments. International students have participated as well. In a video segment that will be played during the musical, international students will be doing interviews covering Freddie’s and Anatoly’s chess game in their native language. Other members of campus members participating in the concert are manager of Digital Media Services Wade Iverson, who will co-record the production and working on multimedia elements for the show. Greg Carlson, associate professor and director of film studies and media activities, and students from Digital Media Services will work on camera elements as well. Other students will work on sound, lighting and backstage work.

The set and lighting for the production have been in the works since the beginning of the school year and has a lot of unique aspects that most students have not seen at a Concordia theatre production in a long time. There will be a huge light show and a video projector that will play video clips of chess games and live feed of the actors on stage. According to Stengel, a lot of the footage will appear to have a vintage look to it. Culloton said a great moment on screen is when all the chess pieces go flying.

According to Duncan, the video segments were pre-produced in December in the TV studio. The show also has live video reinforcement which is image magnification of the actual performance on stage at the same time.  

“For a typical theatre show, a stage manager might be calling lighting and sound cues and now there are some video cues in there and we have an entire separate video crew that is running their own little world backstage,” Duncan said.

Duncan expressed the strong relevancy of “CHESS” to today.

“In today’s political climate, it really fits,” Duncan said. “The U.S. and Russia, with those in tensions in modern day and the tensions in the Cold War… it’s timely.”

Duncan has had a challenging but rewarding run directing “CHESS” and he has loved working with many students and faculty from various areas on campus.

“What has been rewarding is the excitement that I feel in the people around me and hopefully they are feeding off some of the excitement I have with it too,” Duncan said. “As we add more pieces, people start to see more of the big picture and it just keeps building so that has been very, very rewarding as well.”  

“‘CHESS:’ In Concert” will be brought to life on the Concordia College Mainstage April 26-28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are free to students.

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