Los Angeles Theater Review: CHESS (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Tony Frankel on February 13, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Chess, the musical about two chess tournaments between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, 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 was never a cohesive book to Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSbegin with. The original 1986 London production, which stuck fairly closely to the concept album, was taken over (some say rescued) by director Trevor Nunn after Michael Bennett had to bow out at the last minute due to AIDS. After a three-year run (even with mixed reviews), Nunn brought in playwright Richard Nelson to create a more straightforward book musical for Broadway, but instead of embellishing the simple story, Nelson completely retooled it and the enterprise became a muddled mess and flopped. Since then, productions from Sydney to Stockholm have been worked and reworked, some blending the Broadway and West End versions and others removing entire songs – the very songs that were responsible for the show being producible in the first place.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSThis brings us to the very reason why Chess will always be the thing that never dies, even when no definitive producible version has yet to emerge: The score. In fact, it remains one of the most brilliant, electrifying, original, juicy, complex and astonishing scores ever written. Rice’s lyrics – inspired, crafty and pocked with exposition – are combined with beautiful, soaring melodies in an assortment of musical styles which never feel pastiche: 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.

The musical presented last Monday at the Alex was yet again different than what I have seen and heard before. This version is closer to the original London outing, but contains some changes left over from Broadway. It eschews the over-written book by Nelson, but still retains some of the changes he made in 1988 (it came to my attention that this is the licensed version). Regardless of its form, Chess is a perfect choice for Musical Theatre Guild, which does concert staged-readings of rarely-produced musicals. Sadly, Los Angeles’ best musical artists were handed over to the sloppy, uninspired direction of Kirsten Chandler, who would have been much wiser to simply present this as a concert-reading, even as Chandler’s minimal exotic choreography was fun to watch. Since Chess contains both complicated rhythms and tongue-twisting lyrics (which can be denser than U.S./Soviet relations in the 1980s), the attempts to incorporate even minimal staging backfired on a company which is only given 25 hours to rehearse. Every minute should have been spent on the one thing Chess has going for it – that score.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSThe story begins in 1986. The current world chess champion, American Freddie Trumper, arrives in Merano, Italy with his second and lover, Florence, for a tournament against Russian Anatoly Sergievsky. (I’m gonna stop already: At no time in the book is “second” defined; is it someone who takes over when you get sick? an advisor? an analyzer? a go-between? We are left assuming what the second’s role is.) Bad-boy Freddie distrusts the Russian player and his second, Alexander Molokov (who happens to be a KGB informant). After Freddie throws a temper tantrum in front of an arbiter, Florence meets with Anatoly and the two quickly develop a love affair. Anatoly defects and faces Freddie a year later for another tournament in Bangkok, where Anatoly’s wife Svetlana arrives courtesy of the KGB; she is threatened with strife back in Russia lest she convince Anatoly to throw the game. More espionage ensues, but suffice it to say that the characters are rarely fleshed-out, and almost act as pawns to the score.

Playing Anatoly, Dan Callaway is a paragon of legit Broadway singing; his voice is so rich and sweet that we can forgive his lack of preparation. While the script-holding inherent in an MTG production is not normally an issue, Calloway and most of his castmates had difficulty negotiating their script while connecting to other players (the worst offender was Will Collyer in the tiny role of a secret CIA agent, Walter de Courcey – while reading lines, Collyer bobbed his head up and down to the point of distraction).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSThe melodic Broadway-pop ballad “Someone Else’s Story” was added for the original Broadway run. It was assigned to Florence, but in this production it was sung by Melissa Lyons as Svetlana (you know it’s a troubled book when a song can be conveniently plucked from one character and bestowed on another). Lyons simple and strong delivery enthralled up to the near-end when she decided to go for overwrought (something her director should have taken care of). The polished Joshua Finkel combined sexy and sinister as the devious Molokov, and Reed Armstrong brought grace, charm and personality to the role of Florence’s father, Gregor (unhappily, Armstrong’s role came and went in a prologue). And what a lovely performance from Samantha Altounian as Young Florence; her connection to Armstrong was authentic, bittersweet and breathtaking.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSSome of the inexcusable blocking included actors standing profile or singing upstage to the flags of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. But even though I missed Shannon Warne’s face in key moments, her dexterous display of power and vulnerability within a well-controlled belt was something to see (or half-see) as she attacked the role of Florence.

The evening’s disparity can be elucidated by two performances. The casting of MTG comedic favorite Jason Graae as the Arbiter was so wrong as to be reprehensible. This no-nonsense character is the president of the International Chess Federation and referees the tournament; the role demands a rock/pop voice and Graae is the old-fashioned Broadway belter. Even more astounding was the decision to assign the disco hit “One Night in Bangkok” to Graae, who began to play a clarinet in the middle of the song (!), replacing the fluttering-tongue flute solo made famous by Björn Lindh on the ’84 recording with Murray Head as Freddie. And having chorus girls writhe around Graae with Fosse-esque slithers was simply weird.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSIt’s a shame that “Bangkok” was pilfered from Louis Pardo, who ferociously pounced on the role of Ugly-American Freddie. Raw, passionate, and perfectly suited for the symphonic rock sound, Pardo took a role with little background and created a three-dimensional enfant terrible. The act two rock ballad “Pity the Child” not only offers much-needed insight into the petulant, self-absorbed Freddie (better late than never), but clarifies what was missing from MTG’s production: memorization and simplicity. Even with inelegant blocking, Pardo clearly had this song down pat, allowing him to get to the depths of the material.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSNo doubt all of the voices were magnificent, thanks to Musical Director David Lamoreaux, but the unnuanced chorus was heavy-handed with over-amplification. Assisted by a variety of mics (hand-held, stands and head-pieces), lyrics were sometimes lost even when the chorus didn’t move (although I can’t be too hard on MTG; I have yet to see a production when I understood all of the lyrics to “Merano,” the number which introduces us to the denizens of the Italian city where the first chess match takes place). And not only was the poor chorus directed to act like a personality-free road company of Godspell, their imbalanced blend often had harmony drowning out the melody (the hardworking but misdirected ensemble consisted of Tomasina Abate, Jill Marie Burke, Kathy Deitch, Trey Ellett, Jeffrey Polk, Alyssa Simmons, Loren Smith and Brad Standley).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s CHESSIt’s possible that the egregious sound issues may be resolved when MTG reappears next week in Thousand Oaks, but nothing can be done about the tiny ensemble which backed up the powerhouse singers: Because the uncredited musicians consisted of two synthesizers, bass guitar, and drums (and because the musical director was conducting from his drum set), the excellent players may just as well have been a Karaoke machine.

Although Tim Rice hailed Chess in Concert (2008) as the “official version” of his baby, this more than intriguing piece from Broadway history still doesn’t know what it wants to be; is it a book musical, an operetta, an espionage thriller with music? It never lands squarely in any category. But it’s got that marvelous, mind-blowing, miraculous score. Critic Welton Jones’ review of the Broadway production still rings true: “Chess has one of the lushest, most exciting scores heard in years. Truly, this is a score to be treasured, held ransom by a questionable book and production.”

photos by Blue Stage Photography

Musical Theatre Guild
played Alex Theatre, Glendale, on February 10, 2013
then plays Scherr Forum, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
on February 17, 2013 at 3:00; tickets: 800-745-3000
for more info, call 818-848-6844 or visit http://www.musicaltheatreguild.com

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