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Theater makes complex move with zest

By BARBARA FREDRICKSEN, Arts & Entertainment
Published January 19, 2008


Is it just coincidence or is it fate that the same week Richey Suncoast Theatre launched the musical drama Chess, the man upon whose personality it was based, the first American-born world chess champion, Bobby Fischer, died at age 64 an exile in Iceland?

The character in the musical is named Freddie and his Russian opponent is Anatoly, but it is pretty clear that the incident is based upon Fischer's dramatic defeat of Russian chess champion Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War in 1972, a victory that took on mythic proportions to a nation hungry for reassurance in an unsure world.

The match was the most exciting moment in world competition since Englishman Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in May of 1954 and went on to best Australian John Landy three months later, when both men broke that illusive four-minute barrier.

Anyone alive in those years, sports fan or not, remembers those names: Fischer and Spassky, Bannister and Landy. (And triple-crown racehorses Secretariat and Seattle Slew, of course.)

Fischer's petulance was legendary and his temper tantrums were famous for unsettling his opponents. During the 1972 match, like Freddie in Chess, he raised one nit-picky objection after the other, stomping out, hollering about television cameras, and finally getting the match moved to Iceland, where after a couple of losses, he was triumphant.

Putting together Chess at Richey Suncoast sounds almost as difficult as working out the details for that 1972 match.

"We sometimes worked until 4:30 in the morning," said director Charlie Skelton. The complex, convoluted musical score and lyrics had to be learned from scratch by most of the musicians and singers, since the musical is rarely produced or heard. (The Broadway album ranks No. 79,869 in sales.)

Those who do love Chess love it with all their hearts, as many in thecast found out when they, too, fell in love with it during rehearsals. I've seen many community theater shows where chorus members mumbled their way through the songs, even familiar scores like Sound of Music and Annie, but every chorus member in Chess sang it out with gusto. It was a beautiful sight.

The Highwaymen Festival at museum

If you're a fan of the Florida Highwaymen, you'll be excited about the exhibits and events at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs Jan. 26 through the end of February.

The museum will be exhibiting 22 works by several of the Highwaymen, a group of African-American painters who started doing their colorful art in the Fort Pierce area in the mid 1950s.

The 25 men and one woman were dubbed the Highwaymen by art collector and museum curator Jim Fitch in 1995 because they often sold their work from the trunks of their cars along Florida's highways. They have come to prominence in the past decade as the art world realized their work is an important part of Florida history.

Writer Gary Monroe published a book on them in 2001, The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters, and the works suddenly became highly coveted and quite valuable. People started digging those colorful idealizations of Florida out of their attics and selling them to collectors and on eBay for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars or hanging them proudly over their living room sofas.

One of the most charming Highwaymen, R.L. Lewis, has been to Pasco County several times over the past few years to paint, teach and sell. Back in the 1950s, Lewis sold his large works for anywhere from $15 to $20, but a couple of years ago, I paid more than twice that for a tiny one, which I watched him paint, and I treasure it.

Leepa-Rattner has planned a lot of special Highwaymen programs, starting with an opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 26 ($10; free to most members, call (727) 712-5217), and a lecture by author Monroe at 3 p.m. Jan. 27 ($5 nonmembers; $3 members) in the museum auditorium.

At 7 p.m. Jan. 31, the museum will show the film The Highwaymen - Florida's Outsider Artists, an hourlong documentary narrated by Spencer Christian, with vintage footage of the civil rights movement in Florida. The film will be shown in the museum lobby throughout the exhibition.

One special event is from 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 16, the Highwaymen Family Festival. The Kuumba Drummers and Dancers will perform. Several second-generation Highwaymen artists will demonstrate their painting techniques, and those who attend can try out their own painting skills. This event is free.

The museum is at 600 Klosterman Road, about a mile west of U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs. To enter, turn south on Belcher Road at the signal, then watch for the entry sign to the museum on the St. Petersburg College campus on the east side of Belcher.

[Last modified January 18, 2008, 21:41:59]

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