“Thanks for being here,” said a beaming Daniel Thomas — executive artistic director of the 42nd Street Moon theater group — to eager audience members minutes before the evening’s show, “Chess in Concert” started. “Welcome back to live theater!”
Equally excited for the company’s return to in-person musical theater was producing artistic director, Daren A.C. Carollo, who provided more information about the show and the venue, wrapping up the introduction by adding, “Nothing I am going to say is going to matter as much as ‘I missed you so much.’”
The evening’s performance was a concert-style production of “Chess,” a musical with music by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjӧrn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Ulvaeus and Tim Rice and book by Richard Nelson. First released as a highly successful concept album in 1984, “Chess” takes place during the Cold War era during a politically driven chess tournament between two players — one American, the other Russian. Tensions continue to rise between the two grandmasters as the American’s second, Florence, falls in love with the Russian.
The production, directed by Carollo and Danny Cozart, took place at San Francisco’s Alcazar Theatre, a small venue with a 511-person capacity and a whole lot of character. Alcazar Theatre’s interior design and decor screams modern art and personality, and it’s a wonderful place to watch a show. The small size of the theater means that every seat in the house was not too far from the stage, a blessing to be realized once the show begins.
“Chess in Concert” was backed by an impressive 20-piece orchestra led by Thomas. The musicians all sat on stage and were a treat to witness in action throughout the performance. The music throughout was consistently high quality, provided the right energy for each number and excellently complemented the singers each time.
This production of “Chess” was a concert-style performance, meaning emphasis was placed on the singing performance of the songs with little theatrical interaction between the singers. Although this is true for 42nd Street Moon’s latest production, the company included some light staging and fun choreography for numbers such as “One Night in Bangkok” and “Endgame.” Fantastically utilizing the ensemble, these occasional bursts of movement injected energy and liveliness into the performance.
“Chess in Concert” was intended to emphasize the singing voices of its cast, and what amazing voices did the style allow to shine. With an attitude-packed tenor voice, actor Kamren Mahaney brought spectacular energy and spunk to his role as the hot-headed Freddie, and fellow cast member Jaron Vesely performed his numbers with deeply powerful emotion as the Russian Anatoly. Although the entire cast was doubtlessly talented, the performances of B Noel Thomas and Cate Hayman were particularly praiseworthy.
B Noel Thomas, who played the role of the arbiter, was absolutely captivating to watch. Their stage presence commanded attention, their rich voice a joy to listen to and their astounding performance oozed with effortlessness. Their performances of “The Story of Chess” and “The Arbiter’s Song,” though simple, were magically enthralling. Whenever the arbiter was on stage, all eyes were on Thomas.
There are no two ways about it — Cate Hayman, who played Florence, is a downright incredible singer. Hayman is a mezzo-soprano with a full-bodied voice as bright as a bell. She possesses a powerful, steady voice with a phenomenal range; she sent chills down audiences’ spines as she hit mind-boggling high notes without breaking a sweat. Hayman’s performances of “Heaven Help My Heart,” “I Know Him So Well” and “You and I (Reprise)” were particularly strong. No matter how high expectations may have been for Hayman’s singing, she certainly matched or exceeded them.
It didn’t have a Broadway budget or extravagant set, but 42nd Street Moon’s production of “Chess in Concert” is a reminder of the joys of live theater and why it warrants appreciation: Theater stages, big and small, are environments overflowing with passion and talent. It is a marvelous experience to be in a room amidst such soulful dedication, and a privilege to be able to witness it. 42nd Street Moon has made its return to in-person theater, and hopefully, you will too.