Though Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ Chess may now and forever remain a musical that “needs work,” there are ample reasons to catch Tim Dang’s multiethnic revival of the West End hit at East West Players, not the least of which is the singular opportunity to see Chess Not In Concert—but rather as a fully-staged production, with performances, direction, choreography, costumes and lighting all combining to make for a thrilling evening of theater, despite its source material’s undeniable flaws.
EWP Chess_Ensemble For anyone out there who may have been living under a tree for the past three decades, Chess was born the musical brainchild of ABBA composers Ulvaeus and Andersson and lyricist Tim Rice, one that began as a 1984 concept album, played three years in London’s West End, and got re-imagined and considerably re-written for a 1988 Broadway transfer that lasted a scant 85 previews and performances.

Both the UK version (which EWP is presenting) and the US rewrite (which flopped on Broadway) revolve around a world championship chess match between brash American Frederick Trumper (Victor E. Chan) and the equally cocky Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Elijah Rock), 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 (Joan Almedilla), a young woman born in Soviet Hungary but raised in the free world, with Anatoly’s Russian wife Svetlana (Carey Rebecca Brown) arriving in Act Two to complete the love mix. Overseeing all of the above is the nameless Arbiter (Ryan Castellino), with wily Russian Alexander Molokov (Ray A. Rochelle) serving as Anatoly’s second and the equally cunning Walter De Courcey (Michael Alexander Henry) forming part of Freddie’s delegation.

Among the elements Chess The Musical has going against it are a title sport not all that likely to keep an audience glued to the edge of their seats, Richard Nelson’s virtually dialog-free “book,” one which tells its stories entirely through song lyrics (no easy task for an audience to follow even in the best of cases), and a US-vs.-USSR rivalry that has become so dated in the years since Chess’s debut that today’s younger theatergoers may find it hard to relate to. (A 30something audience member was overheard remarking that he had no idea what the verb “defect” meant.)

EWP Chess_De Courcey and Molokov Fortunately, director Dang and company do their dangdest to overcome the source material’s weaknesses, and both they and the audience come out winners.

First and foremost there is the production’s supremely talented mix of performers-of-color, the most rainbow-hued ever in an East-West Players musical, and every bit as gifted as those which have preceded them.

EWP Chess_Florence and Anatoly Almedilla, so moving in EWP’s World Premiere musical Tea, With Music earlier this season, gets quite possibly her best role since Miss Saigon’s Kim in the considerably ballsier Florence Vassy, a part which Almedilla plays with gumption, glamour, and grit and sings with superstar-power pipes in “Nobody’s Side” and “Someone Else’s Story,” and opposite Brown’s stunning Svetlana in the show-stopping duet “I Know Him So Well.” A captivating Brown scores too with the heartbreakingly beautiful “Heaven Help My Heart.”

EWP Chess_Dominatrices and the Arbiter Rock’s gorgeous operatic vocals more than match his leading man good looks as Anatoly, his deeply affecting “Anthem” ending Act One with an emotional wallop. Castellino’s sensational, sexy Arbiter reveals the versatility of this UCLA grad, a night-and-day turnabout from the nerdy Wally he originated in 2009’s World Premiere Life Could Be A Dream, and never more so than when rocking out to the infectious “The Arbiter” and “One Night In Bangkok.” A dynamic Chen belts out “Pity The Child” with the best of them, an equally striking Rochelle sings compellingly about “The Soviet Machine,” and the four-part “Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility)” has Rochelle, Almedilla, Castellino, and Rock harmonizing to heart-pounding effect. A charismatic Henry’s Walter completes the cast of principals, adding his own powerhouse vocals to multiple numbers.

Lending bang-up support in assorted cameos are EWP favorites and newcomers Cesar Cipriano, Stephanie Mieko Cohen, Jasmine Ejan, Shay Louise, DT Matias, Maegan McConnell, Alex Sanchez, Justin Vasquez, whose uniformly cover-model looks are more than matched by their triple-threat talents. A standout Sanchez plays Anatoly’s Act Two opponent Leonid Viigand, Vasquez’s ingratiating Mayor gets to welcome the chess teams to his town of Merano, Cipriano and Matias’s pole dancers are each more perfectly sculpted and limber than the other, and last but not least, Ejan dance-bedazzles as the Spirit Of Chess, both in Act One Indian mode and Act Two Thai garb.

EWP Chess_Ensemble 2 Director Dang’s vision comes particularly to life in scenes which combine dramatic action with Marc Oka’s inventive choreography—the ingenious opening “Story Of Chess,” the chess teams’ welcome to “Merano,” the sizzling “The Arbiter,” and above all the super-sexy Miss Saigon-esque “One Night In Bangkok.”

Dang makes imaginative use of scenic designer Adam Flemming’s striking multi-level set, while Flemming’s projection design takes us from Italy to Thailand, in addition to projecting live news broadcasts with various ensemble members as reporters. Anthony Tran’s costumes are a truly stunning bunch in shades of black with red and gold highlights, while Ken Takemoto’s props are stunners as well. Dan Weingarten lights all of the above with a dazzling display of pizzazz and Vegas-ready glitz.

Music director Marc Macalintal conducts and plays keyboards in the production’s outstanding live orchestra (Jenny Chaney on keyboards, Stuart Espinoza on drums, Khris Kempis on bass, Vincent Reyes on guitar, and Austin Yancey on woodwinds). Macalintal insures as well that every cast member is vocalizing at the peak of his or her talents (though there are times when the David Henry Hwang Theatre’s sound system does higher notes no favors).

Ondina V. Dominguez is stage manager and VIVS assistant stage manager.

Wikipedia writes that “no major revival production of the musical has yet been attempted either on West End or Broadway,” and it may be the case that Chess simply doesn’t have what it takes to become the blockbuster that sung-through musicals like Evita, Les Miz, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Miss Saigon have become. Still, with Dang and company’s creative juices at full boil, East West Players’ revival comes darned close.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 15, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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