Los Angeles Theater Review: CHESS IN CONCERT (MET Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on August 7, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


You know, it mystifies me when friends ask for a recommendation on what musical to see and I mention the first thing that pops into my head, only to have it discounted. Case in point: I told someone they have to see “Chess in Concert at The Met Theatre.” I saw their eyes go blank. “Anything else?” “Chess in Concert.” “Who’s doing it?” “Musical Theatre of Los Angeles. And guess what? It’s a very short run, so you better get your tickets now.” “Well, who’s in it?” “(SIGH) Listen, if you want to read my review, here it is, but by the time you’re done, you could have ordered tickets. It’s stunning and brilliant with talent just oozing out of the theatre! Call the box office NOW.” “Well, what about Young Frankenstein?” That’s when I throw up my hands and wonder why I review at all.

Chess, the musical about two chess tournaments between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War (that’s all the plot you’re getting from me), is the 1979 brain child of lyricist Tim Rice, who teamed up with ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, to create the (still) immensely popular 1984 concept album. Since then, Chess has had more variations than moves in a chess game, mainly because there has never been a cohesive book. Productions from Broadway to Stockholm have been worked and reworked, some having removed entire songs – many that were responsible for the show being producible in the first place. (For Broadway aficionados, it should be known that all the trouble started when the original 1986 London production was incompetently retooled after the director, Michael Bennett, had to bow out at the last minute due to AIDS; that disease still haunts the Theatre World.)

What possible reason could there be for a show’s refusal to die when no definitive version has yet to emerge? The score. In fact, it remains one of the most brilliant, original, astonishing scores ever written; Rice’s inspired and clever lyrics are combined with beautiful, soaring melodies in an assortment of musical styles (Rice is exemplary when it comes to expositional lyrics). The score reflects other styles without feeling pastiche, such as Italian Opera (“Merano”), Gilbert and Sullivan (“Embassy Lament”), Rock Ballad (“Pity the Child”), Disco (“One Night in Bangkok”), and Symphonic (“Chess Game”) People who hear this masterpiece for the first time often respond with incredulity that they had not been introduced to it before. For now, it seems the best and only way to hear and see Chess is the concert version, which is rarely ever done. Besides, pulling off Chess is no easy feat, what with its tongue-twisting lyrics and challenging ranges for singers. It is reported with high spirits that you can see it now with an orchestra, chorus and Broadway-caliber leads that shine with professionalism. (Remember, this is a concert, so you may espy the occasional music stand or script.)

The version at the Met Theatre is based on a London concert version (supervised by Tim Rice) that was produced in 2008 starring Josh Groban, but this reviewer staunchly believes that the cast here trounces those from that production. The beautiful Nicci Claspell plays Florence, the second to American World Chess Champion Frederick (quirky Blake McIver Ewing) with heart and conviction – she avoids pop-song yodeling and sticks to character-driven singing. Well done! (By the way, a “second,” like many things in the book, is never clarified; think player representative, trainer, and analyst – like the second in a duel.) The book does not clarify who Svetlana is, other than “the wife,” but beguiling Emily Dykes’ interpretation of “Someone Else’s Story” makes us feel as if we know her. Gil Darnell makes for one sexy Arbiter.

The two actors playing the main Russian characters take a most satisfying show and launch it into the extraordinary: Broadway veteran and rich baritone Gregory North as the deceitful second Malokov makes slimy intrigue look inviting; stunning and emotional Peter Welkin (as Anatoly, who responds to questions about his defection from Russia with the resounding “Anthem”) brought the house to its feet; when Mr. Welkin and Miss Claspell sing “You and I” and “Mountain Duet,” they capture perfectly the unresolved ache, yearning, and torture that comes from a loving yet doomed relationship.

Director Robert Marra amazes with the fluidity of his team: the strong chorus dexterously glides in and out, while Tanya Possick and dancers execute smart choreography which enacts the inner turmoil of a chess match with emotion and strength. Greg Haake leads his full orchestra with élan, and piano player James Lent is mesmerizing. The chorus succeeds in spewing out some diabolical lyrics even though there are a few sound issues – the leads, chorus and orchestra at the same volume can cancel each other out.

Chess is loved for its melodies and its potential to be one of the greatest musicals of all time. One day, a book will come along that matches the score. Until then, this production gives us yet another reason to love it.

Chess in Concert
Musical Theatre of Los Angeles
MET Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Ave.
EXTENDED to August 29, 2010
for tickets, call 323-960.7735 or visit Plays411

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