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Chess

Also see Sharon's review of I'll Be Back Before Midnight

Chess
Louis Pardo, Jason Graae and Dan Callaway
Chess is one of those musicals I find extremely frustrating—a terrific score attached to a book that nobody has ever been able to make work. It seems like a perfect candidate for Musical Theatre Guild, the folks who bring Los Angeles audiences one- (or two-) night performances of concert staged readings. Because, honestly, all you want from Chess is a kick-ass live rendition of the songs.

And yet, I have to admit that, even with a concert staged reading, the downright awfulness of the book takes its toll. This is neither the concept album version, nor the West End version, nor the Broadway version, nor the Royal Albert Hall concert version you might have seen on PBS. It is a bizarre amalgam of these versions, with many changes, and some plot variations the source of which I can't place. The result has moments that make little sense. (Freddie refuses to shake Anatoly's hand before the first match, throws down his chair, and walks off. Florence and Molokov, the players' seconds, then sing lyrics about how both players weren't playing fairly in the game—overlooking the fact that the players never actually played at all.) The show's ending may make you sniffle emotionally while hating yourself for it—the performances pull at your heartstrings, but what is actually going down plotwise is ham-handed at best (and a complete betrayal of character at worst).

Set that aside, though, and things are looking better. MTG has assembled a cast which, while not extraordinary, is certainly very, very good. Indeed, every one of them has a moment. While Shannon Warne can't quite rock out on "Nobody's Side," "Heaven Help My Heart" is more solidly in her wheelhouse, and her rendition raises goosebumps. Louis Pardo's "Pity the Child" strikes a terrific balance between musical theatre and rock. Dan Callaway (who gets bonus points for keeping his Russian accent solid while he sings) has a convincing "Anthem." Melissa Lyons Caldretti nails "Someone Else's Story," and she and Warne team up effectively on "I Know Him So Well." (The latter, coming right after "Pity the Child," makes for a devastating one-two punch.) And Jason Graae's arbiter earns laughs with "One Night in Bangkok," the only song in the show with any attempt at choreography (and it's darned humorous choreography).

What keeps Chess from soaring on the strength of these performances is the over-amplification of the ensemble. (The notoriously lousy acoustics at the Alex Theatre in Glendale do not help matters; perhaps things will be better at the second performance in Thousand Oaks.) If I didn't already know the lyrics from this show, I'd be lost. Indeed, when the show reached a song not on any of the recordings I already own, it was an unintelligible mess. The person sitting next to me did not return after intermission; I assume incomprehensibility was to blame. Let me put it like this: At the end of "Anthem," Callaway's Anatoly turns upstage for a moment, to look at his country's flag, and starts to sing the last lines of the song. But the ensemble is also singing, and they are so loud, you can't hear him at all. It isn't until he turns back to face the audience that you can tell he's singing (because you can see his lips moving) and then try to catch his voice in the mix. It's as though everyone's mic is turned up to ten, and when you've got one soloist trying to be heard over eight ensemble members, the soloist has no chance at all. It is a real shame; MTG's cast clearly has the goods—they just get lost every time the ensemble joins in on a number.

Chess played at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on February 11, 2013. It will play at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza's Scherr Forum on February 17, 2013. For tickets, see www.ticketmaster.com; for information see www.musicaltheatreguild.com.

Musical Theatre Guild presents Chess; Music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; Lyrics by Tim Rice and Björn Ulvaeus; Based on an idea by Tim Rice; Book by Richard Nelson. Director/Choreographer Kirsten Chandler; Musical Director David Lamoureux; Production Coordinator Jeffrey Christopher Todd; Production Stage Manager Art Brickman; Costume Designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, AJS Costumes; Assistant Stage Managers Christopher Rosko and Kirsten D'Agostaro Shook; Assistant Costume Designer Jessica Olson.

Cast:
Anatoly Sergievsky – Dan Callaway
Freddie Trumper – Louis Pardo
Florence Vassy – Shannon Warne
Svetlana Sergievsky – Melissa Lyons Caldretti
Arbiter – Jason Graae
Alexander Molokov – Joshua Finkel
Walter De Courcey – Will Collyer
Gregor Vassy – Reed Armstrong
Young Florence – Samantha Altounian
Ensemble – Tomasina Abate, Jill Marie Burke, Trey Ellett, Jennifer Malenke, Jeffrey Polk, Alyssa M. Simmons, Loren Smith, Brad Standley


Photo: Blue Stage Photography


- Sharon Perlmutter






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