Chess In Concert @ The Met Is No Stalemate

This odd piece of musical theatre has undergone so many changes throughout its history that it’s a miracle it’s survived at all. Not surprisingly, though, Chess has developed quite a cult following. I, having grown up listening to the Concept Album all my life, have been an avid fan of the music and seeing it for the first time has not been a disappointment.

It premiered in London and had a 3-year run on the West End in the mid 80s, but a quick demise on Broadway in the late 80s (it closed after only 2 months.) Many fault the book (and I do too), which has been spotty and unfocused. It has been tweaked and re-tweaked by all involved that calling it a mess is not far from the truth. Still, the one thing that has remained constant is the music. There’s no denying the power of the music of Chess. It’s operatic at times, but all encompassing, using a wide range of musical genres to tell its story. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Anderrson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, Chess was poised to be a hit. In reality, however, it has been a mega success in recordings and live concert versions, rather than in an actual theatrical format. The musical centers around a chess tournament between an American and a Russian. Loosely based on the chess matches between Boris Spassky and American grandmaster Bobby Fischer, the story centers on a love triangle between the two players and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other during the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

MTLA’s current production of Chess In Concert is about as true to its mission statement of preserving the integrity of the original or revival musical production as if it were producing it for the first time the way its creators would ever hope to produce their work. This production at the Met Theatre in Los Angeles understands the elements that make this musical work: the music. It is a genuine attempt to present it as truthful and stirring as the score demands, because the music is one of the most lush and emotional of any of the best musicals out there. So much so that director Robert Marra should be commended for his deep understanding of this musical and for putting together this formidable casting to bring it to life. Using the “official” book by Richard Nelson (approved by Tim Rice), which takes elements of the London show and elements from the Broadway show (it was staged in 2008 with an all-star cast that included Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, and Adam Pascal), MTLA’s production does one better than that stellar cast with a truly talented cast of their own. Nicci Claspell as Florence and Emily Dykes as Svetlana elevate “I Know Him So Well” to new emotional heights –  a crucial element lacking in the 2008 Royal Albert Hall production. The beautiful ballads resonate deeply and are bound to move the audience to tears. Peter Welkin and Blake McIver Ewing as Anatoly and Frederick are perfect contrasts, both lyrically and emotionally – a petulant American and a stoic Russian. Emotions are well balanced throughout the show, going over the top at times, but always within context of the musical, each actor registering the proper emotion, making for a satisfying concert that handles the sweeping score beautifully. Which brings me to another point of this production, which makes it stand out. This is a “concert” version of the show, however, this production is so polished that it never feels like a concert. Kudos to MTLA for taking careful measures to bring this cult favorite to the LA stage. Fans of Chess have a chance to see one of the best productions of this musical ever mounted. If you haven’t seen this musical or even familiar with it, this is a great opportunity to become a fan.

Chess In Concert opens August 19 and runs through the 29th for six performances only at the Met Theatre, 1089 Oxford St, Los Angeles. For tickets, visit www.plays411.net.

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