Review: Chess at Tidewater Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions

The Cold War, an international chess championship, political relations between The United States and The Soviet Union, spies, friends, enemies, lovers, enemies who become lovers… it’s all going on at Tidewater Players in their latest offering, Chess, with Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Lyrics by Tim Rice. All this fodder and music by the dudes from ABBA can’t go wrong and, wherever you stand on Chess (some love it, some hate it), there’s no denying that Director Mark Briner, Music Director R. Christopher Rose and Stephanie Carlock Cvach, and Choreographer Bambi Johnson knocked it out of the ballpark with this better-flowing, energized concert version that tells the story completely and cuts out all the muddle.

Briefly, and according to the Guide to Musical Theatre (http://www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com), “This highly acclaimed musical develops the ancient and distinguished game of chess into a metaphor for romantic rivalries and East-West political intrigue. The principal pawns form a love triangle: the loutish American Grandmaster, the earnest Russian champion, and the Hungarian-American female chess second, who arrives at the international championships with the American but falls for the Russian. From Tyrol to Thailand the players, lovers, politicians, CIA and KGB make their moves to the pulse of this monumental rock score.”

Set Design by Director Mark Briner is smart and minimal and pulled this piece together nicely. As this production is more of a concert version, a large, lavish set was not needed, but a few levels and, some chairs and music stands did the job just fine and didn’t clutter the stage allowing for the superb staging and choreography to be showcased.

Thomas Gardner’s lighting design is, in a word, splendid. His use of colors, isolated lighting, and blend of cool and warm tones helped tell this story and kept the piece energized and interesting throughout. He knows his stage well and lights it beautifully, adding great value to this production.

Choreography by Bambi Johnson is impeccable. She knows her cast and the ensemble shined in each number. Upbeat, high-energy, and tight, the impressive choreography was engaging and kept the audience interested. From the smooth ballet to the rockin’ pop moves, this original choreography inspires.

Music Direction under R. Christopher Rose and Stephanie Cvach is superb and it seems quite easy with the exquisite voices with which they have to work. A small band including R. Christopher Rose on Piano, Stephanie Carlock Cvach on Keyboard, Will Poxon on Percussion, Helen Slaich on Reeds/Clarinet, and Greg Bell on Bass Guitar fill the theatre as adequately as a full orchestra and each number is polished and well-performed. Kudos to Rose and Cvach for an impeccable job.

Director Mark Briner is to be applauded for his efforts in bringing this production to the stage. As I stated, Chess is one of those shows that people love or people hate, for the most part. I’m in a small percentage that is in between where I love the music (how can you dislike anything from the dudes from ABBA?… don’t answer that), but I’m not very fond of the book. Since this is more of a concert version, the book has been cut to a minimum and the concentration is on the music which works brilliantly for this piece. Briner’s staging is tight and refined and the pacing is just about perfect. A mix of blocking and choreography brings it all together beautifully and makes for a very entertaining evening of theatre.

Moving on to the performance of this production, I’d be amiss not to mention that the entire ensemble of this piece give top notch performances and all should be commended for their work and effort to make this a stellar production, a whole.

To mention a few, Terry D’Onofrio as Alexander Molokov and Aaron Dalton as Walter de Courcey take on the roles of puppet masters, of sorts, guiding their chess champions for political gain. D’Onofrio is well suited for his role as Molokov and has a good grasp though his use of an accent may hinder his performance rather than enhance it, especially vocally in the numbers in which he is featured. However, his performance is strong and confident and he pulls it off nicely. Dalton gives a strong performance with a solid stage presence. Vocally, Dalton gives impressive renditions of the numbers he’s in, such as “Merchandisers.”

Eileen Aubele and Barbara Hartzell are marvelous Svetlana Sergievskaya and Florence Vassy, respectively. Hartzell excels in this conflicted character, portraying that conflict in delivery of dialogue and physical gestures and great chemistry with her cast mates while Aubele, who comes in later in the piece, makes the most of her stage time with a poised presence and good hold on her scorned, but seemingly forgiving character. Vocally, both actresses are powerhouses and fill the theatre with a smooth, booming sound and harmony as in numbers like the poignant “Someone Else’s Story” sung beautifully by Hartzell, and the powerful duet, “I Know Him So Well.” Aubele and Hartzell are to be celebrated for their performances.

Taking on the role of cocky International chess champion (and former champion) Frederick Trumper, Rob Tucker is a highlight and shines in this production. He embodies this character and portrays him with just as much pompousness as required and his transition in his character is seamless from beginning to end. Vocally, Tucker is superb which he showcases in his strong and confident performances in numbers such as the popular, high-energy “One Night in Bangkok” and the emotional “Pity the Child.” Tucker is certainly one to watch (and you can’t help but to) in this production.

Rounding out the featured cast is standout Shawn Doyle, taking on the multifaceted role of Anatoly Sergievsky. Doyle has performed this role numerous times but it’s as fresh as ever. He understands this role inside and out and he gives a consistent and exquisite performance. He portrays the conflict, confusion, and hurt that is required of this character and gives a vocal performance that is excellent, to say the least. His renditions of the duet “You and I” and the Broadway standard, “Anthem” is smooth, emotive, and resonates throughout the theatre making for a memorable and exquisite performance.

Final thought… Even the cold war is over, Chess is still as relevant today as when it was released. This production is well put together and cuts what needed to be cut and still told the story in its completion. The performances are spot on and the entire ensemble is giving 100% effort. Staging keeps the audience engaged and interested and the music is performed near flawlessly. Admittedly, Chess is not on the top of my list when it comes to musical theatre, but it’s mainly because of the book. The music has always been the driving force in this piece and in this production is more concert-like making for an absolutely joyous evening at the theatre. Get your tickets now because this is not one you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of Tidewater Players’ production of Chess… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Chess will play through October 1 at Tidewater Players at The Cultural Center at the Opera House, 121 N. Union Street, Havre de Grace, MD. Purchase tickets at the door one hour before show time or purchase them online.

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Review: Monty Python's Spamalot at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre

by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
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Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Many folks the world over are familiar with or at least have heard of that crazy troupe from across the pond called Monty Python and this company’s various films and television appearances. I was one of those folks who had heard tell about this zany group of people but… I admit it… I was not very familiar with their work and I do get funny looks for saying so! However, I did have the pleasure of seeing Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre’s latest offering, Monty Python’s Spamalot, with Music by John Du Prez and Lyrics & Book by Eric Idle, Direction by Laurie Starkey, Musical Direction by R. Christopher Rose, and Choreography by Amanda Dickson.
Having heard of Monty Python, I knew I was in for some comedy but I was glad I hadn’t seen any of the films because I was able to go in with no preconceived notions. I knew this piece was loosely based on the story of King Arthur and Camelot but that’s about as far as my knowledge went. Most of the jokes, although about 40 years old, were new to me and I enjoyed watching the audience burst into fits of laughter and often joined in.

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(l-r) Jeff Burch, Steve Flickinger, David Jennings, Chip Meister, Phil Gallagher, and Gary Deiter as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Patsy. Photo Credit: Lisa Boeren


From the moment I entered the theatre, I knew I was in for a treat from a technical standpoint and Scenic Designer Michael Rasinski took me back to the Middle Ages with his brilliant set. The focal point is a large two story castle right in the middle of the stage with two towers on either side. Along with smaller set pieces, the set came together very nicely, and scene changes were fluid and quick. The large set, which looked like a lot of thought and care was taken, helped the story along without overshadowing it. While renting sets and set pieces is easier and a route many larger theatres take, Rasinski designed and created a sensational, original set that deserves its own curtain call. I also have to mention the representation of “God” that was very clever and funny as the higher being is portrayed as to very, very large feet that fly in and , indeed, that might need a bit of room to store for the next time! The attention to detail is impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Rasinski in the future.
Adding to the production value is the well thought out costume plot by Costumer Mark Briner. This seems like a show with a million costumes, but Briner has brilliantly managed to make sure every piece of wardrobe is in place and each character is costumed appropriately whether it be the female ensemble in soldier uniforms or a male actor playing the mother of a knight, all the costumes are spot on and fitting for this madcap musical.
Speaking of music, Music Director R. Christopher Rose did a fine job of getting this large cast to perform these songs swimmingly. As a fan of “old-fashioned” Broadway, all the songs were definitely of the traditional “show tune” variety and the cast pulls them off nicely under the direction of Rose.
As far as community theatre goes, Choreographer Amanda Dickson knocks this production out of the park! Her choreography is not only appropriate for the piece, but very entertaining and well thought out. All of the larger numbers like “Knights of the Round Table” were tight and precise, which is what I look for in group dances, and the cast looks like their having a blast performing. “The Laker Girls” cheer routine was brilliant and the ensemble performed it flawlessly and the tap numbers (which make this old fashioned Broadway guy smile ear to ear) hit the nail on the head! Dickson seems to know her cast and choreographs accordingly, making the production look effortless.
Rounding out the production side of Month Python’s Spamalot, I mustn’t neglect Director Laurie Sentman Starkey and I have to say she does a bang up job with this production. She seems to have a complete grasp of the material and the comedy therein, which is no small feat and her vision is well thought out and it transferred flawlessly to the stage. Her casting choices were superb and under her guidance, this production is top notch.
Overall, the performance of Cockpit in Court’s Monty Python’s Spamalot was very enjoyable and every entertaining. Again, as a person who was only somewhat familiar with the popular Monty Python, I was certainly not disappointed, in general. I consider Monty Python’s Spamalot an ensemble piece and I adore ensemble pieces as it features each individual of a cast in one way or another. The female ensemble of this piece is absolutely on point with their dances and voices and they added a certain pizazz that I look for in this kind show. The male ensemble, though decent and giving a very respectable performance, doesn’t seem to have the energy that the female ensemble has in the group numbers. One mostly male ensemble group number (and eleven o’clock number), “His Name is Lancelot” stands out to me, but, I must say that, though it was a disco, upbeat song, the performance is a little flat and fell short of energizing the audience as it should have. Regardless, it is clear the entire ensemble, both female and male, gives 100% to their performance and carried the show along very nicely.
Sir Lancelot, one of the most famous Knights of the Round Table is portrayed by standout Steve Flickinger, who also takes on many other roles in this piece including a French Taunter, a Knight of Ni, and Tim the Enchanter, all of whom he portrays magnificently. Flickinger is a brilliant character actor with great comedic timing who’s quite a busy bee in this production but each of his characters is unique and stands on their own.
Another standout in this production is Jeff Burch, a Baltimore theatre native who takes on the role of Sir Robin, as well as Guard 1 and Brother Maynard. Burch does a splendid job as Sir Robin, the Knight of the Round Table who has, shall we say, theatrical proclivities and a habit of soiling himself at the most inopportune times. His number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” is one of those old fashioned numbers I’d mentioned before and Burch performs it flawlessly with high energy.
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Eileen Keenan as The Lady of the Lake with Ensemble. Photo Credit: Lisa Boeren


As the only female with a featured role, Eileen Keenan takes on the role of The Lady of the Lake, and being the only featured female among all these zany male characters can be quite challenging. However, Keenan tackles the role with no holds barred and carries her own with this crazy actors and has a big voice with an impressive belt, which is exactly what this role needs. There were times when Keenan seemed a little out of breath for her big diva-esque numbers and her pitch may have been a little off as was the case in her number “The Diva’s Lament” but, overall, she performed the role brilliantly and with a brassy confidence that is required for this challenging role.
David Jennings as Sir Gallahad, as well as taking on the roles of Herbert’s Father and The Black Knight is one of the highlights of this production. His comedic timing is spot on and he commands the stage whenever he steps on. He seems to understand the tongue and cheek comedy of this piece and though his performance is outstanding, he knows not to take himself too seriously as to not ruin the comedy of his characters. He exhibits this understanding in his duet with Eileen Keenan, “The Song That Goes Like This.” It’s a beautifully written song, but still comical, and can’t be taken too seriously and though the two perform the song beautifully, the comedy is still prominent and shines through. I look forward to seeing great things from Jennings in the future.
Gary Deiter as Patsy and Phil Gallagher as King Arthur. Photo Credit: Lisa Boeren

Gary Deiter as Patsy and Phil Gallagher as King Arthur. Photo Credit: Lisa Boeren


Another absolute highlight and standout in this production was Baltimore theatre veteran Gary Dieter who takes on the role of Patsy, King Arthur’s devoted and belittled manservant. There’s not much I can say about Deiter’s performance other that it was near perfection. He is certainly a triple threat. His acting and comedic time are superb as he also takes on a couple of other roles in the piece, his voice is big and confident, and his dancing is magnificent, especially his tap dancing skills which are hands down excellent. He takes the lead in the number “Always Look in the Bright Side of Life” arguably the most famous of the songs from this production, and his performance is impeccable in this production. He has a great command of the stage and is a pure joy to watch in this production.
Of course, Monty Python’s Spamalot couldn’t be without the character of King Arthur, who is portrayed by Phil Gallagher. It’s a fun-fact that Gallagher is actually from across the pond and his British accent is absolutely genuine. He’s a fine actor and seems to grasp understand the comedy of the piece but, according to his bio, this is his very first attempt at musical theater and… it shows. While he is up against power houses like Dieter and Jennings, his singing and dancing seem sub-par but he does hold his own and is very comfortable on the stage, which helps immensely. Though his performance is up to the level of some of his fellow actors, he keeps the character light and airy and he does have great comedic timing. He may not have experience with musical theatre, but his confidence shines through and his command of the stage is evident.
Rounding out the cast are Chip Meister, another Baltimore theatre regular, who takes the roles of Sir Bedevere, Dennis’ Mother, and Concorde, Stanton Zacker, as Not Dead Fred, and Sir Bors, and Austin Shields as Historian, Minstrel, and Herbert.
Meister pulls his characters off gloriously, especially as Dennis’ Mother, who he plays in bad drag, and has the audience in stitches, Zacker, as Not Dead Fred, participates in one of the most famous bits from Monty Python and takes the lead in the number “I Am Not Dead Yet,” in which he gives a wonderful performance, also leaving the audience in fits of laughter, and Shields, who opens the show as the Historian and sets the tone and pace, does a very nice job as the Minstrel and Herbert with his tenor voice and slim frame which both fit perfectly with the roles.
Final thought… Monty Python’s Spamalot is a perfect production for a larger community theatre and Cockpit in Court’s production is not to be missed this summer. Overall, it is a very enjoyable, funny, fast-paced show that is chock full of familiar jokes and bits but also has a fresh presentation for those who are not so familiar. I was unfamiliar with the show but I was certainly NOT disappointed. As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to seeing the Monty Python films on which this show is based!
This is what I thought of this production of Spamalot.… what do you think?
Monty Python’s Spamalot will play through July 31, Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, and Thursday, July 28 at 8pm at CCBC, Essex Campus, Community Center. For tickets, call 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase the online.