While watching a recording of the 2008 London production of Chess In Concert at Royal Albert Hall, Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles’s Eduardo Enrikez and Bonnie McMahon were struck with a flash of divine inspiration (or out-and-out insanity)—to stage their own Chess In Concert with a 10-piece orchestra and 20-member cast in a 99-seat theater. A daunting task to say the very least, but then again so were MTLA’s revivals of Ragtime and West Side Story, just two of the Broadway mega-musicals which the creative duo had scaled down to 99-seat dimensions to critical acclaim and audience cheers.

Opening last month for a limited five-performance run, Chess In Concert proved such a success with its SRO audiences that MTLA has brought it back for six more nights, and StageSceneLA readers are hereby advised to reserve seats posthaste. Make no mistake: this Chess In Concert is so out-and-out WOW!-worthy a production that tickets are likely to sell like proverbial hotcakes.
For those out there who may have been living under a tree for the past two and a half decades, Chess is the musical brainchild of ABBA composers Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the BB of ABBA) and lyricist Tim Rice.  Beginning as a 1984 concept album, the musical revolves around a world championship chess match between brash American champion Frederick Trumper and his Russian opponent, Anatoly Sergievsky, a contest which mirrors the Cold War still being waged at that time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  Complicating matters is an operatic-style romantic quadrangle which has both Frederick and Anatoly the object-of-affection of Frederick’s “second,” Florence Vassy, a young woman born in Soviet Hungary but raised in Great Britain, with Anatoly’s Russian wife Svetlana arriving in Act Two to complete the love mix.
Though a 1988 Broadway adaptation lasted only 17 previews and 68 regular performances, Chess has survived its Broadway flop status quite nicely, particularly in concert form.  Los Angeles audiences were treated to a Chess In Concert at the Ford Amphitheatre three summers ago, and even those who thought the excitement of that star-studded one-night-only event couldn’t be equaled are likely to enjoy this scaled-down production every bit as much.
Director Robert Marra sets the production’s creative tone from the get-go, with black-clad ensemble members entering one by one, each performer carrying a single chess piece atop a 12”x12” white cardboard square.  After placing the chess pieces one-by-one on a center-stage game board, cast members then affix the white squares to the black walls stage right and left in a chessboard pattern, setting the stage for the upcoming tournament—and the songs which tell its story.
Though company members stand or sit behind music stands where their scripts rest “just in case,” not once during the (Re-)Opening Night performance did a single performer refer to his or her book. With several dance sequences imaginatively staged by choreographer Tania Possick, and just enough blocking to suit each of Chess’s dramatic confrontations, Chess In Concert comes across more staged production than concert—and merges the excitement of both.

Blake McIver Ewing is a dynamic Frederick, hitting thrilling high notes in the powerful “Pity The Child” and rocking the house with the ‘80s pop hit “One Night In Bangkok.” As Florence, the captivating Nicci Claspell sings “Nobody’s Side” and “Heaven Help My Heart” with crystal clarity and loads of power.  Emily Dykes makes for a lovely and touching Svetlana, her voice rich with depth and emotion. Together Claspell and Dykes make their duet of “I Know Him So Well” every bit the showstopper Chess’s writing team intended it to be.  Sexy Aussie Gil Darnell brings rock star charisma to the role of The Arbiter, Gregory North is a forceful, imposing presence as Molokov, and Rich Brunner (Walter) and Christopher Zenner (Viigand) do assured work as well.  Above all there is the revelatory performance of Peter Welkin as Anatoly. A longtime staple of West Coast Ensemble and the Academy Of New Musical Theatre, Welkin has done fine work before in both musical and straight dramatic roles.  Here he is positively phenomenal, bringing leading man charisma, acting chops, and a rich baritone to all of Anatoly’s musical numbers, most particularly the deeply emotional “Anthem.”

Doing multiple duty as backup singers, Greek chorus, and assorted supporting characters are Chess In Concert’s stellar featured soloists: Richard Brunner, Kelly Dodson, Aly Fainbarg, Kristen Heitman, Katrina Rennells, Jonas Sills, Blake Sterlling, Jeff Swanson, Josie Yount, and Christopher Zenner. Executing Possick’s balletic moves with grace and precision are Paulina Bracone, McMahan, Possick, and Betsy Uhler. 

Kudos all around to the team who have put together this awesome endeavor.  Under the impeccable musical direction of Greg Haake, Chess In Concert’s superb orchestra provides quite possibly the richest musical accompaniment ever heard in a “Waiver” production. Deserving behind-the-scenes kudos are lighting designers Gabrieal Griego, Monica Milas, and Marra; executive producer Jorge Henriquez; producers Michael Abramson, McMahan, and Brooke Seguin; co-producer/assistant to the director Griego; stage manager Miklas; property master Kim O’Bannon, and production assistant Heidi Estrada. Master sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski gets high marks for mixing voices and instruments despite an occasional glitch, perhaps to be expected in a venue unaccustomed to a production of this grandeur. 

Chess In Concert reaffirms Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles’ status as one of L.A.’s preeminent producers of musicals under Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat-Plan.  Trust me, you won’t see a Chess of this caliber with this many Equity cast members at MTLA’s affordable prices anywhere else in the United States, and that includes Chicago and The Great White Way. 

The Met Theatre, 1089 Oxford Ave., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 19, 2010


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