Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Manatee Players
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's reviews of The Book of Mormon and All the Way

The Cast
Photo Courtesy of Manatee Players
Manatee Players is currently offering the musical Chess. I don't recall any previous productions of this show in the 11 years I have been in the area, so audiences are unlikely to have been overexposed to this story of East-West diplomacy, or lack thereof, centered around an international chess match. With music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson of Abba fame and lyrics by Tim Rice the concept album was a huge success. A London production with most of the same singers opened in 1986 and played to mixed reviews for three years. A reworked version for Broadway was not a hit, despite a brilliant cast headed by Judy Kuhn, David Carroll, and Philip Casnoff. This is the version being presented by Manatee Players.

Because of the show's spotty stage history, I was pleasantly surprised that the storytelling is clear and concise; the book is by Richard Nelson. Standout songs such as "Someone Else's Story," "Anthem," "You and I," and "Pity the Child" raise the emotional temperature and I find it an exciting musical.

Chess is a show that requires great voices, and Manatee Players has cast the three leading roles with some of the best local . Dianne Dawson, always a great singer, is spectacular as Florence. I sometimes forget what a fine actress she is. She finds every bit of Florence's strength, standing up to the bullying of Freddie but also her emotional emptiness, caused by being ripped from her native Hungary at a very young age. Omar Montes brings star quality to his performance as Anatoly, the Russian champion; his singing of "Anthem" is simply stunning. Cory Woomert steps up into a leading role as Freddie after several outings in cameo parts. His singing and stage presence are excellent, but he still has some growing to do as an actor. His fine singing of "Pity the Child" doesn't quite find the emotional center and it does not score as strongly as it can. This is still an excellent move into a central part. Sarah Cassidy as Svetlana is always dependable: This woman sings everything, high soprano roles and Broadway belt. She joins Dianne Dawson in one of the best known songs, the duet "I Know Him So Well" to bring down the house. Mike Nolan as Ivan Molokov, Rodd Dyer as Walter Anderson, and Scott Vitale as the Arbiter all offer fine supporting performances. Those in smaller roles and the ensemble all contribute to the musical excellence of the production.

Manatee Players Artistic Director Rick Kerby has directed his cast well. The show doesn't require major dancing, so he is able to keep his choreography within the abilities of his cast. Conductor Aaron Cassette and his band support the production fittingly. Scenery by Ken Mooney and lighting by Joseph P. Oshry are the outstanding elements. I have rarely seen lighted moving panels used so effectively. Instead of cliches, they are used to perfectly to capture the era of the story. I am not sure who is responsible for the projections, all of which are effective, but one in particular, used to set the stage for chess games is very effective. It begins with a chess board that grows to fill the screen then morphs to a checkerboard globe, black and white, then becomes red and white, and suddenly the American and Russian flags appear. Becky Evans' costumes are also a big plus.

Everything comes together to make this one of the strongest productions Manatee Players has done this season. One more wonderful thing—everything being sung and spoken is understandable in ways that have not been the case at this theater. Dare I hope that the acoustical problems that have plagued this venue have finally been solved?

Manatee Players presents Chess through February 28, 2016, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton; 941-748-0111,

Florence Vassey: Dianne Dawson
Freddie Trumper: Cory Woomert
Anatoly Sergievsky: Omar Montes
Ivan Molokov: Mike Nolan
Walter Anderson: Rodd Dyer
The Arbiter: Scott Vitale
Svetlana Sergievsky: Sarah Cassidy
Gregor: Bruce LaRoche, Brian Chunn
Young Florence: Ansley Alexander
Nikolai: Bradley Keville
Peter/CIA Agent: Craig Engle
Joe/CIA Agent: Jack Harkleroad
Harold: Callaghan Mayer
Vanity Fair Reporter: Amy Woerner
Television Reporter: Kris Sethi
Arbiter Assistants: Emily Branton, Ashley Cronkhite, Amanda Lade, Alex Mackey, Amy Woerner, Abigail Zion
Ensemble: Emily Branton, Ashley Cronkhite, Craig Engle, Cheryl Gutner, Jack Harkleroad, MariAnne Hernandez, Laura Priscilla Hoffman, Bradley Keville, Kyle Ann Lacertosa, Amanda Lade, John MacKay, Alexandra Mackey, Tahj Malik, Sarah Martin, Callaghan Mayer, Mitcheal Pearl, Linda Roeming-Engle, Kris Sethi, Amy Woerner, Abigail Zion Young Florence Understudy: Mya Kroot

Chess Orchestra:
Aaron Cassette: Conductor/Keyboard
Rebecca Heintz: 2nd Keyboard
Reeds: Teri Booth
Trumpet: Victor Mongillo
Percussion: Catherine Doersch

Directed and Choreographed by Rick Kerby
Musical Direction by Aaron Cassette
Production Stage Manager Kristin Ribble
Scenery Designed by Ken Mooney
Lighting Designed by Joseph P. Oshry
Costumes Designed by Becky Evans

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