Jim Cox
Gabriela Carrillo, Michael Dotson, Ashley Hunt, Glenn Rosenblum in CVRep's Chess. Credit: Jim Cox

There is only one word to express the feeling one gets when entering Coachella Valley Repertory’s new digs: awe.

Artistic director Ron Celona and his board of directors have completely transformed the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a live playhouse worthy of Broadway. From the impressive “Wall of Donors” and the expansive refreshment bar with gracious bartenders, to the luxurious VIP Lounge (called the Producer’s Room)—complete with its own flat-screen TV, piano and automated sliding glass door—everything screams “class.” The lobby of the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City also features a rendering of the Cathedral City Downtown Arts and Entertainment District. With CVRep as a hub, if all goes according to plan, it will feature an outdoor amphitheater, an alternative transportation trail and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ new gaming/retail and entertainment center. As for the playhouse, the $3 million price tag was covered by private donors, a loan from the city and a grant from the Cathedral City Downtown Foundation.

Then there is the theater itself: Celona has more than doubled his seating capacity (208 versus 86 in his previous location) and installed a massive 2,700-square-foot stage.

It’s all the realization of a dream Celona said kicked into high gear when he left his position directing plays at the Joslyn Center 12 years ago. He took a year off and traveled the country, picking the brains of other successful theater companies. Celona’s goal was always to produce “theater of substance,” he said, adding that Coachella Valley audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, the timing was just right for CVRep to take the step up to the current location.

The company’s production of Chess—with the book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—was a wise choice to christen the new facility.

The musical tells the story of a world chess championship between brash American Freddie Trumper (Garrett Marshall) and dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (David Sattler); the characters are loosely based on Viktor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. Freddie’s assistant is the beautiful Florence (Gabriela Carrillo), who tries her best to keep him in line. Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Michael Dotson), is actually a KGB agent. The first game of the match does not go well, and a meeting is called to smooth things over. Florence and Anatoly eventually realize they have feelings for each other; this budding romance and Freddie’s erratic behavior cause Florence to leave her post.

The Russian wins the chess championship—and defects to the West. While defending his title year a later in Bangkok, with Florence by his side, Anatoly faces even more complications: His wife, Svetlana (Ashley Hunt), has showed up to watch the match. Meanwhile, Freddie’s agent, Walter (Glenn Rosenblum), suggests to Florence that her father, whom she has not seen since they fled Hungary decades earlier, may still be alive. I won’t give away more, but the plot is chock-full of betrayal, heartbreak and political intrigue.

The cast is stellar across the board. Garrett Marshall’s Freddie is spot-on—cocky, immature and full of swagger. As the somber Anatoly, David Sattler is excellent. He has a soaring singing voice and strong acting chops; both his romantic and patriotic conflicts ring true.

Michael Dotson is terrific as Molokov. Cold, calculating and sly as a fox, he embodies our vision of a Russian spy. The Russian accents used by both Dotson and Sattler are quite believable. As Freddie’s money-hungry agent, Walter, Glenn Rosenblum is a perfect fit, as is Jeremy Whatley as the arbiter, who enforces the rules of chess throughout the show, and keeps the matches moving along. Ashley Hunt is quite strong as Anatoly’s betrayed wife, with musical pipes that shake the rafters.

The ensemble (Sydney Clemenson, Brianna Maloney, Cassidy McCarron, Roman Skryabin, Daniel Sugimoto and Michael Rawls) adds the right touch to the proceedings. Each actor is featured in small speaking roles, and their group numbers are top-notch.

But the highlight in this superb cast is Gabriela Carrillo as Florence. Lovely and charismatic, she has us rooting for her immediately. We feel her frustration in trying to control Freddie, and then later, we relate to her true love for Anatoly. Her singing voice is flawless, and she has some of the best numbers in the show, including “Heaven Help My Heart” and her duet with Svetlana, “I Know Him So Well.”

“Chess” has a bit of a rock-opera feel, and some of the music is a bit dissonant. If you’re a big fan of Oklahoma! and hoping for tunes to hum on the way home, you may be a bit disappointed.

The orchestra, led by musical director Scott Storr on piano, is fabulous. The choreography, lighting, sound and costumes are all outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Jimmy Cuomo’s exquisite set.

But the biggest kudos of all have to go to director Ron Celona for assembling such an amazing cast and coaxing stellar performances from each actor. Chess is an impressive production that’s well worth seeing.

It’s amazing to see the dream that Celona has made come true. Thanks to him for providing the Coachella Valley with thought-provoking, quality theater—now in a gorgeous Broadway-style venue.

Chess is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Bonnie Gilgallon

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...

3 replies on “Checkmate! CVRep Opens Its Stunning New Playhouse With a Fantastic Production of the Musical ‘Chess’”

  1. Bonnie… I’m ripping up my review of “Chess” that I was sending to my editor. What’s the use? Your review of “Chess” is fabulous, hard to match and I’m proud to say I wish I had written it. Great review! Love from your “honorary Dad”…. Jack Lyons

  2. New CVRep theatre in Cathedral City is beautiful, what a gift to the valley, but why anyone would select a legendary theatrical bomb, CHESS, to open the new playhouse is beyond comprehension. The musical has no redeeming characters, no heroes, no fulfilling journey… the reason Broadway audiences stayed away in droves.

    Ron Celona’s production here is poorly-directed, embarrassingly-acted, making clear once again, CVRep continues to lower the bar for theatre here in the desert, while being cheered on by those who don’t know good theatre from bad.

    Yes, Gabriela Carrilo (Florence) does fine work, but the rest of the cast suffers from bad direction. Poor Garrett Marshall (Freddie) starts on one note (obnoxious) and remains there all show, fumbling the chance to redeem himself with ‘Pity the Child.’

    CHESS’s big number, ‘One Night in Bangkok,’ is thrown away. One actor, Glenn Rosenblum (Walter) seems to be acting to a theatre of two-thousand rather than two-hundred.

    If you’re looking for subtext or subtlety with costumes or acting, you won’t find it here. Choreography makes no sense.
    Putting a bushy wig on a twenty something-year-old actor to play an old man is the final embarrassment.

    Maybe one day CVRep will start doing interesting plays, bring in better directors, raise the bar? One can only hope.

  3. I’ve seen Chess 33 times now, in London, New York and Chicago. It is one of my favorite musicals. Done rarely, I’m sad to see a production that dishonors the show so thoroughly.

    Poor set design, lighting, sound and choreography only begin to explain what is wrong with this production. Singing and acting were quite good, in spots. However, Garrett Marshall’s performance as Freddie in such a pivotal role was an embarrassment through and through.

    The dance numbers should have been cut. If you don’t have good dancers, particularly in a small theater, skip the dancing. Perhaps the best production I’ve seen, at the Marriott Lincolnshire in Chicago, did not include them. There are workarounds.

    There is not one bad song in the entire musical, but the beautiful melodies were lost because the orchestra could hardly be heard. Music often overpowers singing. In this case, it was the exact opposite.

    Now 70, I’ve seen more live theater than a dozen theater-goers together see in a lifetime. Directors are ultimately responsible for the quality of a production. I admire the guts it took to do such a difficult show in the first place, but it is sad to see a musical so good destroyed by direction that can only be described as amateurish.

    I wanted this night at the theater to be the highlight of my week. Instead, It brought it to an end with a loud crash.

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