Friday, August 20, 2010

CHESS in Concert at the MET Theatre - GO!

CHESS, MET Theatre

I’ve attended many concert and staged readings of musicals in Los Angeles and most tend to be simple presentations, on book at music stands, with little or no additional production elements. CHESS in Concert at Musical Theatre of Los Angeles has elevated the concert reading convention to new heights, with a lush 9-piece orchestra, spectacular lighting, and powerful staging. The production showcases 8 principle actors, 12 featured soloists and 4 dancers under the stellar direction of Robert Marra.

Written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (formerly of ABBA) with lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Richard Nelson, CHESS takes place in 1979 and 1980 during the world chess championships. It is the height of the Cold War and top players Frederick (the American) and Antoly (the Russian) must deal with much more than just the complexities of the game. They face deception, intrigue and betrayal…and an intricate romance with the same woman.

Handsome Blake McIver Ewing plays the spoiled American to Peter Welkin’s Anatoly. Freddie’s character flaws suggest interesting similarities to the reckless arrogance of the U.S. during the race for world domination. Politics hang thickly in the air as each man struggles with his innermost demons, and each must ultimately make choices that will affect not only himself, but a great many others as well. Ewing’s portrayal of Freddie offers valuable insight into what makes a boy the man he will later become.

Welkin is at the top of his game as Anatoly, possessing a presence that commands attention with every move, both on and off the chess board. It is a compelling performance of a man driven by love of the game, yet undone by the game of love, and Welkin fills it with equal parts subtlety and passion. Vocally strong and expressive, his “Where I Want To Be” and “Anthem” are two of the highlights of the night.

Coming between the two rivals is Hungarian-born Florence, played by Nicci Claspell, who begins as Freddie’s second but later leaves him to be with Anatoly when Freddie’s childish behavior becomes unbearable. Far too late she realizes that she, too, has been only a pawn in a much more serious game of cat and mouse. As the pivotal point in the love triangle, Claspell exhibits the poise of a seasoned actress well beyond her years and her voice moves seamlessly between pop/rock belt and lyrical soprano with ease.

Veteran stage actor Gregory North plays the manipulative Molokov, Anatoly’s second, with a calculated nonchalance and perfect Russian dialect (as is Welkin’s) that works beautifully as he seeks to further his political agenda. When Molokov brings Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (the lovely and talented Emily Dykes) from the Soviet Union to the match in Bangkok, he does so with the single intention of upsetting him enough that he will lose the match. Da.

The rest of the supporting cast and outstanding ensemble includes Rich Brunner (Walter), Christopher Zenner (Viigand), Gil Darnell (The Arbiter), Michael D’Elia, Kelly Dodson, Aly Fainbarg, Kristen Heitman, Katrina Rennells, Jonas Sills, Blake Sterling, Jeff Swanson, Megan Yelaney and Josie Yount.

The choral sound this group of singers achieves, together with the orchestra, is absolutely gorgeous. Hats off to musical director Greg Haake for taking the pulsating rhythms, soaring melodies and distinctive tonalities found in CHESS and making this a most satisfying musical experience.

Tania Possick’s choreography intensifies as the games progress, creating a stunning visual for the mounting tension, with featured dancers Paulina Bracone, Bonnie McMahan and Betsy Uhler joining Possick on the floor.

Lighting design is by the team of Gabriel Griego, Monica Miklas and Robert Marra, who use the stark contrast between light and dark to create movement throughout the scenes. By directing pinpoints of light on a single face, body shift or section of the stage, they add a theatricality that is incredibly powerful.

Yes, there is a great deal to love about the MET’s CHESS in Concert. Don't miss it!
You have five more opportunities to experience it yourself – August 20, 21, 27, 28 and 29 at 8pm. The MET Theatre is located at 1089 N. Oxford Avenue, Hollywood, CA 90029.

Tickets are available online at

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