After their phenomenal concert staged reading of Titanic The Musical, a production I dubbed “one of Musical Theatre Guild’s crowning achievements,” you might think that the triple-threats of MTG would want to take it easy for the rest of the 2012-2013 season.

Not so, as last night’s titanic staging of Chess (In Concert) at Glendale’s Alex Theatre made abundantly clear, and for those who missed this phenomenal achievement, you have but one more chance to catch it this coming Sunday afternoon in Thousand Oaks.

MTG Chess #2 For anyone 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 (Louis Pardo) and his Russian opponent, Anatoly Sergievsky (Dan Callaway), 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 (Shannon Warne), a young woman born in Soviet Hungary but raised in Great Britain, with Anatoly’s Russian wife Svetlana (Melissa Lyons) arriving in Act Two to complete the love mix. Overseeing all of the above is the nameless Arbiter (Jason Graae), with wily Russian Alexander Molokov (Joshua Finkel) serving as Anatoly’s second and the equally wily Walter De Courcey (Will Collyer) forming part of Freddie’s delegation.

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, which is how Musical Theatre Group chooses to stage it, as they did the similarly problematic Titanic—with equally brilliant results.

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Kirsten Chandler, who won a Best Director Scenie for her staging of last year’s Little Women, tops even that with Chess, eliciting sensational performances from both leading players and ensemble singers, the latter of whom undertake assorted minor roles. And for those of you who might think that “in concert” means standing in front of music stands, think again. Though Chandler has wisely blocked Chess to suit its concert format, her staging is visually striking from start to finish. Not only that, she has choreographed the musical’s Billboard chart topper “One Night In Bangkok” as a Bollywood-ready pansexual extravaganza that earns justified audience cheers.

Then again, cheers are the order of the evening as, one after another, Callaway, Graae, Pardo, and Warne vie for Most Valuable Player, with Caldretti, Collyer, and Finkel each having their own stellar supporting moments in the spotlight.

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Callaway’s deeply emotional “Anthem,” Warne’s thrilling “Nobody’s Side” and “Heaven Help My Heart,” Graae’s scene-stealing “The Arbiter” and “One Night In Bangkok,” and Pardo’s rock-startastic “Pity The Child” are showstoppers each and every one. “Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility)” adds Finkel’s voice to Warne’s, Graae’s, and Callaway’s to heart-pounding effect. Then there’s “I Know Him So Well,” pitting the power pipes of dynamic duo Warne and Caldretti against each other in the evening’s most dramatic, compelling duet.

14050_4818925264903_2053457348_n 555863_4818869143500_1532393579_n In fact, there is so much music in Chess that it’s hard not to mention each and every song, and if a minimum of spoken dialog might leave some audience members scratching their heads as to what exactly is happening plotwise, whatever confusion there might be hardly matters compared to the power and glory of the voices soaring up to the highest balcony seat.

17639_4818862743340_82864425_n Ensemble members Tomasina Abate, Reed Armstrong, Jill Marie Burke, Trey Ellett, Jennifer Malenke, Jeffrey Polk, Alyssa M. Simmons, Loren Smith, and Brad Standley simply could not be more electrifying throughout, with Reed opening and closing the evening with a beautifully sung turn as Florence’s father Gregor opposite Samantha Altounian as Young Florence, and Warne proving herself an actress extraordinaire in the production’s highly emotional climax.  (Note to casting directors: This reviewer would love to see Shannon Warne in a play.)

David Lamoureux shares credit for the evening’s brilliance, as musical director, band member, and conductor of the Chess’s rock concert-ready onstage band.

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Master costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg of AJS Costumes assigns Chess’s Americans a slick, chic black-and-white look and outfits its Russians all in black. (Jessica Olson is assistant costume designer). Dramatic lighting effects give the production a particularly striking look, and for once, sound at the Alex at the performance reviewed went off without a hitch.

Art Brickman is production stage manager, assisted by Christopher Rosko and Kirsten D’Agosaro Shook. Jeffrey Christopher Todd is production coordinator.

If as Wikipedia puts it, “no major revival production of the musical has yet been attempted either on West End or Broadway,” it may well be because Chess is best served in concert form. Broadway hit or not, Chess The Musical makes one blockbuster concert as this Musical Theatre Guild triumph makes abundantly clear.

Alex Theatre, Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
February 11, 2013
Photos: Blue Stage Photography



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