(left to right: Nicci Claspell, Peter Welkin, Blake Ewing, Emily Dykes) (photo credit: Stan Mazin)
CHESS In Concert
music by Benny Anderrson & Bjorn Ulvaeus; lyrics by Tim Rice
book by Richard Nelson
directed by Robert Marra
Musical Theatre of Los Angeles
remaining performances: Saturday Ausust 21;
next week: Thursday the 27th, Friday the 28th & Saturday the 29th of August, all at 8 pm
MTLA's (Musical Theatre of Los Angeles) elegant black & white designed concert version of CHESS enriches the dramatic conflicts of the piece one hundred-fold. Like pawns on the board, The Players themselves are manipulated in the game of life and the moment by moment emotional intensity transcends the stage. Robert Marra's expert staging and Tania Possick's exquisite choreography/ballet are riveting, and the entire ensemble connect and explode like a time-bomb.
Never having seen the original show on a vast stage, I cannot imagine it done but in this intimate way. The taut game is a symbol of the political confrontation between the US and machine-like USSR in 1979. The champion American player Freddy (Blake Ewing) is high-strung and prone to outbursts with disturbing results. Deep-seated issues with his past not only cost him the match but also the love of Florence (Nicci Claspell), torn between his loyalty, though neurotic, and the intrigue of his opponent handsome but married Anatoly (Peter Welkin). Florence has always been Freddy's stabilizer, but this time around in the bargaining things change drastically for her. Svetlana, Anotoly's wife (Emily Dykes) is flown into Italy for the match and, witnessing her husband's attraction, can somehow relate to Florence's vulnerability. All four act and sing magnificently. Claspell is a knockout throughout offering what seems an effortless portrayal of a driven but honest woman who gets unduly let down by both lovers. Dykes offers beautiful emotional restraint, Ewing makes the childlike man complex and fascinating at every turn, and Welkin is electric as the Russian pawn who must ultimately do what he is trained to do. Also in terrific support are Gregory North as Molokov, Gil Darnell as the Arbiter, Rich Brunner as the radio commentator Walter, and Christopher Zenner intense as Viigand, the second Russian opponent. Kudos to the other soloists: Michael D'Elia, Kelly Dodson, Aly Fainbarg, Kristen Heitman, Katrina Rennells, Joans Sills, Blake Sterling, Jeff Swanson, Megan Yelaney, and Josie Yount, and to the four ballerinas: Paulina Bracone, Bonnie McMahan, Tania Possick and Betsy Uhler. Greg Haake conducts the wonderful 10-piece orchestra.
Although "I Know Him So Well" was the biggest hit from the show, other enticing numbers from the Anderrson/Ulvaeus/Rice score include the rousing second act opener"One Night in Bangkok", "You and I", "Nobody's Side", "Heaven Help My Heart" and "Pity the Child". Praise to Marra for steadfast direction, and especially for his staging at the top of "The Story of Chess". His sharp intro of all the characters and inventively clean layout of chorus members onstage sets the scene for the evening: a beautifully and most clearly organized program.
Whether you are into the game - which is played center stage on a raised platform - or into the politics or just plain overwhelmed by good theatre that has both fine music and universal drama, CHESS in Concert should satisfy each and every appetite.