Pittsburgh Musical Theater starts the season with Cold War rock opera 'Chess'
From left to right, Logan Williams as Freddie, Michele Coben (Florence), Adrianne Knapp (Svetlana) and Zander Lyons (Anatoly) in the Pittsburgh Musical Theater production of "Chess" at the Byham Theater. Photographer: PMT Staff
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Cold War defection ... Adultery! Sexual awakening ... Nudity! Religious revolution ... Crucifixion! Jilted blonde ... Revenge!
Sounds like R-rated fare at the local cineplex and not what you'd expect from Pittsburgh Musical Theater, a company that for 21 years has nurtured young performers in student and professional stage productions.
This daring PMT season opens tonight with the rock opera "Chess," a Cold War-era love triangle involving Russian and American champion chess players. Then January roars in with "Spring Awakening," a show based on a banned 19th-century German play with partial nudity and explicit lyrics. "Jesus Christ Superstar" is the spring offering, with "Legally Blonde" filling out the season.
Ken Gargaro can't help but laugh when sharing a story about his mostly high-school age cast preparing for "Chess."
"One of the kids said to me, what's all this about Budapest 1956? What does this mean? I said, did you look on the Internet?," said Mr. Gargaro, the directing co-founder of Pittsburgh Musical Theater.
"Chess" throws a lot of intellectual and emotional themes at you, such as master chess moves, manipulations of players and their loved ones on the Soviet and American sides, defections and political prisoners, infidelity and passion ...
The task Mr. Gargaro has set for his company and himself would likely leave a less even-tempered fellow in a more agitated state than the calm man nursing a late-afternoon coffee in a quiet Downtown spot.
He was speaking of the season as a whole, but mostly "Chess" and "Spring Awakening" specifically, knowing that he has a big sales job ahead of him. There's not a comfortable "Seussical" or "Wizard of Oz" on the roster. Even "Legally Blonde," based on the Reese Witherspoon hit film, has been to Pittsburgh just once before, with the 2009 national touring company.
"Part of the Rubric for the choice of a show is what's fun for the kids, usually a rock 'n' roll- style show; what is orchestral; and then it's 'Can I get a title?'," Mr. Gargaro explained. "Now, 'Chess' is a risk in the title area, because people don't really know the show. But it's a show I've always wanted to do and a show I've admired for years. "
Pittsburgh Musical Theater and the Richard E. Rauh Conservatory are known for their work developing young performers, which Mr. Gargaro also has been doing in recent years as an associate professor at Robert Morris University.
With "Chess," he's chosen a show last given a major production here in 1997, by Pittsburgh CLO. That's to say it isn't your typical high school musical, especially as a choice for the season-opening production with the CAPA Orchestra. Led by David Knapp, the musicians are about 48 strong and bolstered by some members of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. There also are more than 40 chorus members and more than two dozen members of a "pop choir" and a dance ensemble.
The orchestral power of "Chess" was a key element in a 2008 staged concert starring Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel that was shown on PBS and became a popular DVD. Seeing that version persuaded Mr. Gargaro that there was something there for his kids.
"It's become a period piece now. I think for a while it appeared dated, it dealt with the Cold War. But now the Cold War has been over for so long, people are forgetting about the era," Mr. Gargaro said. "And then when I saw this new HBO documentary, 'Bobby Fisher Against the World'...loved it! And I realized, what a great thing. The ABBA guys [Benny Andersson and Björn Ulnas, plus Tim Rice] took Bobby Fisher's life and basically spread it out over the two characters. ... It's also about East-West relationships at a moment in time, and it's worth seeing to remind you of what it was like."
The score can be daunting for even the strongest musicians and voices, but it still fit into Mr. Gargaro's PMT formula for an all-student production.
The other challenge is that the students come from all over -- "I often say we're a county company," Mr. Gargaro said -- so there isn't a lot of time for chess lessons or Cold War history lessons about defections and prisoner exchanges. Students from Robert Morris are gaining production experience by creating video clips for the screen that is central to the show's staging.
Fans outside of the theater realm may remember "Chess" for its song that charted, "One Night in Bangkok," performed by original cast member Murray Head. They may be less familiar with the tale of his character, the hot-tempered American Freddy and the quiet Russian master, Anatoly Sergievsky, who has a wife and children but falls for Freddy's girl.
Anatoly will be played by Our Lady of the Sacred Heart's Zander Lyons, a Gene Kelly Award nominee last year. The lone collegian in the cast is Robert Morris' Logan Williams as Freddy Trumper, a vocal role fraught with difficult highs and lows. Mr. Williams also was his star for the RMU production of "Spring Awakening" that will be PMT's second show of a season and one that will challenge performers and audiences, but perhaps no one more so than the actors' parents. The Tony Award-winning "Spring Awakening," which calls for partial nudity and contains some obscenity-laced, sexually explicit lyrics.
Mr. Gargaro's association with a university is helping him make choices in the PMT cast.
"I flushed all that out with Robert Morris," he said. "I think that 16 and over is safe, depending on how much dialogue the kids have with their parents. I'm going to use several of the people I have [from RMU]. Of all the shows we do, this is a show that needs youth. They're supposed to be 15-year-olds. ... I'm leaning toward using several of those [college actors] because they were so strong, they are the right age and they looked fabulous. They needed a bigger theater to really show what they can do. I'm going to replace some people, too."
In the weeks before putting "Spring Awakening" before Pittsburgh Cultural District audiences, Mr. Gargaro is hoping to employ a ticket-selling strategy he used for last year's production of "Seussical," when cast members performed bits at local libraries.
"I'm thinking I need to do a similar road show with 'Spring Awakening' -- not to libraries, but at student life activity that's appropriate for us to come and donate 10 minutes of entertainment. We'd like to get out into the university community and show how theater can be transformational."
Mr. Gargaro returns to the theme of theater's ability to transport an audience over and over, his No. 1 goal for choosing a Pittsburgh Musical Theater show. It's also to give young performers a chance and a challenge.
With the current production of "Chess," some of the roles are double-cast, including Svetlana, Anatoly's wife, shared by Lyric Ackelson and Adrianne Knapp, conductor David's daughter.
Her presence represents a strong family connection within PMT, where Patty Knapp is an administrator and David has been a long-time collaborator.
"I always consult with David Knapp ... actually, this is how it all started: When David was in 10th grade, I was teaching chorus at Plum High School in 1972, and he played Albert in my first production I ever directed of 'Bye Bye Birdie.' And he's now 55, and I'm now 63."
The other shows will feature professional musicians. But for now, PMT makes the first move of perhaps its most daring season with "Chess."
It may seem like a lot to take in for the kids and the audience, but not to the seasoned director. "I'm just hoping to give them an evening of some really upbeat music in an epic story," he said.
First Published October 27, 2011 12:00 am