It is not apples and oranges, writing about the Arvada Center's regional premiere of "Chess, A Musical" and the Denver Center Theatre Company's revue "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash in the same breath.
Think of it more as a consideration of Romas and Granny Smiths, Winesaps and Golden Delicious. Because over the next few weeks, theatergoers can bite into two approaches to the musical — each one differently flavorful.
"Ring of Fire" is crisp, juicy, a treat in the warm, fragrant dusk. "Chess" is dense, unusual. It's nearly as heady as the "game of kings" from which it takes its title.
With a quartet of strong-voiced leads, it serves as yet another reminder that the Arvada Center does not cower from a challenge. Because this musical is not — and has never been — easy to mount.
"Chess" arrived in 1984 as a concept album before becoming an actual staged performance.
Tim Rice, co-creator of "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (also successful albums before becoming stage hits), conceived the story and wrote most of the lyrics. The music comes by way of Benny Anderrson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA. One song became a hit single in 1985 : "One Night in Bangkok."
In 1986, the musical opened in London's West End. Then, in a very different version, it made its way to Broadway in 1988. The history of the musical is itself full of maneuvers and tactical shifts.
"Chess" opens with two fedora-wearing, trenchcoat-clad men standing on a shadowy stage focused on chess pieces. The game table sits atop a floor that resembles a chessboard. The Arbiter (Sydney James Harcourt) watches from a balcony above the action.
Spy vs. spy, indeed.
Brash American Frederick "Freddie" Trumper (Gregg Goodbrod) and buttoned-down Anatoly Sergievsky (Tally Sessions) are soon to begin a world title match. Lisa Karlin portrays Hungarian émigré Florence Vassy, Freddie's manager and sometimes lover.
Because the competition takes place in the bracing air of the Cold War, Anatoly and Freddie are hardly alone. Their respective governments have a role in the outcome. Stephen Day brings commanding stature and a resonant baritone to handler Alexander Molokov. American Walter de Courcey (Colin Alexander) appears less savvy and more commerce-driven. Of course, looks are meant to throw off opponents.
Early numbers push the story along with a rocking shove. Even so, a few narrative signposts get lost in the vigorous but slightly muddied delivery of the ensemble in the opening song, "Story of Chess."
And Freddie and Florence's early duet "Commie Newspapers" was just discordant enough to make one wonder if his flats, her sharps were the point. After all, Freddie and Florence are not a pitch-perfect couple.
Directed by Rod A. Lansberry (the Arvada Center's artistic director), "Chess" is an ambitious mixture of harsh and tender moods.
Sung muscularly by Goodbrod, Freddie rebuffs the audience's sympathies. With a soaring tenor, Sessions' Anatoly gains them back, delivering an aching melancholy.
In Freddie, the play has its bluster. When Anatoly takes the stage, "Chess" finds its heart. When Florence sees him, she finds her soul mate.
Megan Van De Hey ("Ragtime") captures our sympathy as Anatoly's wife, Svetlana. If Karlin and Sessions make Anatoly and Florence a pair worth rooting for, Van De Hey's strong presence and solo "Someone Else's Story" won't let the audience cheer them on without a fight.
The Man in Black
Conversely, "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash" is a warm, straightforward pleasure.
Given its black-clad subject, this musical revue (created by Richard Matlby Jr. and conceived by William Meade) can be at times a bit honey-hued in its nostalgia.
Yet the production provides a tight, celebratory tribute to one of the 20th century's most influential singer-songwriters. (And, for relentless brooding, there's always Joaquin Phoenix's turn in "Walk the Line.")
Cash's biography unfolds through a number of his best-known songs and some lovingly rendered hymns. Highlights: "Five Feet High and Rising," "Daddy Sang Bass" and a hilarious and touching "A Boy Named Sue." The full ensemble nails it when they form a line across the stage and rev through the traveling tune "I've Been Everywhere."
The menfolk make for a sturdy presence. Director Jason Edwards cuts a rugged, rightly creased figure as Johnny's dad and as an older Johnny Cash tempered by life.
With an easy smile, Troy Burgess can be a little too aw-shucks at times, but the actor shows his mettle toward the end of the show when the weighty wisdom of life has settled into the Arkansas boy.
The stage is simple. There's a log cabin with a porch big enough for the show's rousing musicians: Brantley Kearns, Jeff Lisenby, Brent Moyer, John Marshall, Walter Harman and John Foley. Marshall handles the bass fiddle like it's been his dancer partner for a lifetime.
Still, "Ring of Fire" belongs to the women. Trenna Barnes charms with ease as Cash's sister and later, a young June Carter. In the ridiculously rhyming ditty "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart," she flashes that June Carter wattage, capturing just how comfortable Carter was teasing her hee-haw-haw shtick.
But it's Kelli Provart, portraying Johnny's mother and a terrifically grown-into-womanhood Carter Cash, who gives the night its fundamental heft.
Provart's generous voice is a fitting match for Cash's wounded, wondrous songwriting. This, she seems to declare note upon note, is the work of the American songbook pulled from the silty soil of a carnal and sacred, glorious and hardscrabble nation.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or firstname.lastname@example.org
"Chess, a Musical" *** (out of four stars)
Book by Benny Anderrson and Björn Ulvaeus. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Rod A. Lansberry. Starring Gregg Goodbrod, Lisa Karlin, Tally Sessions, Sydney James Harcourt, Megan Van De Hey, Stephen Day and Colin Alexander. Through April 15 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd. Tickets: $52-$72, available at 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.
"Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash" *** (out of four stars)
Created by Richard Maltby Jr. Conceived by William Meade. Directed by Jason Edwards. Starring Trenna Barnes, Troy Burgess, Edwards and Kelli Provart. Through May 13 at the Stage Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St. Tickets: $55-$75, available at 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.
THIS WEEKEND'S THEATER OPENINGS
Denver Center Theatre Company's "Heartbreak House"
Opening Thursday, April 5, through April 29: At an English country house on the brink of World War I, a vibrant assembly of the pampered, privileged and powerful enjoy frivolous pursuits as disaster draws near. George Bernard Shaw mixes comedy and drama. Recommended for ages 15 and up. No children under 6.
Showtimes: Note new performance schedule: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Sundays.
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100 or the denver center's home page
Town Hall Arts Center's "The Who's Tommy"
Opening Friday, April 6, through May 6: The Who's electrifying rock opera by Peter Townshend tells of a young boy's journey from pain to triumph. After witnessing the accidental murder of his mother's lover by his father, Tommy is traumatized into catatonia, and as the boy grows, he suffers abuse at the hands of his sadistic relatives and neighbors. As an adolescent, he's discovered to have an uncanny knack for playing pinball, and when his mother finally breaks through his catatonia, he becomes an international pinball superstar. This production is directed by Nick Sugar and features a live band.
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 22
2450 W. Main St., Littleton, 303-794-2787 or town hall's home page
Byers-Evans House Theatre Company's "Shakespeare and Me"
Opening Friday, April 6, through April 28: In this new one-man show, written by and starring Joey Wishnia, the actor shares his personal, dramatic and humorous experiences over a lifetime with Shakespeare. Wishnia has appeared in 19 of Shakespeare's plays and directed five on three continents. From his first school play through his most recent readings, Wishnia's stories include his encounter with the greatest Shakespearean actor of the past century - Laurence Olivier. Wishnia was the recipient of the 2011 Colorado Theatre Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award. The performance takes place in the library of the historic Byers-Evans House Museum, amid the Evans family's furnishings.
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; plus Monday, April 16 (no performances April 20 or 21)
At the Byers-Evans House Museum, 1310 Bannock St., 303-620-4933 or byers-evans' home page
Union Colony Dinner Theatre's "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"
Opening Friday, April 6, through May 20: Enduring musical set in the 1850s Oregon wilderness, where the young bride of a rugged country man endeavors to civilize her six rowdy brothers-in-law.
Showtimes: 7:45 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 1:45 p.m. Sundays (dinner 75 minutes before)
802 9th Ave., Greeley, 970-352-2900 or union colony's home page
Adams Mystery Playhouse's "Murder at the Speakeasy"
Opening Friday, April 6, through May 25: Interactive dinner-theater comedies staged by Marne Interactive Productions. The show entertainment starts 30 minutes before dinner and continues into and beyond. This gangster tale is set in a 1920s speakeasy, one of these colorful characters is up to no good, and it's up to the audience to solve the comedy whodunnit. Appropriate for all ages.
Showtimes: 6:30 p.m. doors and dinner Fridays and Saturdays
Presented by Marne Interactive Productions, 2406 Federal Blvd., 303-455-1848 or adams' home page
Complete theater listings, however you like them
Go to our complete list of every currently running production in Colorado, including summaries, run dates, addresses, phones and links to every company's home page. Or check out our listings by company or by opening date