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LA Theater Review

Chess in Concert

The unique musical "Chess" appears to have more lives than the proverbial cat (or "Cats" for that matter). It originated as a 1984 concept album and has been tweaked through countless stage renditions. In recent years, the show seems to have found its ideal form in concert presentations, where Richard Nelson's still-unwieldy book takes a back seat to the remarkably eclectic and highly listenable score by ABBA composers Benny Anderrson and Bjorn Ulvaeus ("Mamma Mia") and lyricist Tim Rice ("Evita"). This tale of Cold War intrigue, complex romantic entanglements, and cutthroat chess competition is told engagingly and with musical splendor in director Robert Marra's invigorating revival, boasting a smashing ensemble of singer-actors, a wonderful nine-piece orchestra led by music director Greg Haake, and Tania Possick's inspired choreography.

Calling this production a "concert" shortchanges it a bit, as the off-book performers and Marra's captivating staging imbue the piece with fluidity and grace, yielding an expansive theatrical experience. The story takes place at world chess championships in Italy and Bangkok. In the first match, in 1979, while Soviet-U.S. political conflicts lurk behind the games, headstrong American Fredrick (Blake McIver Ewing) takes on formidable Russian challenger Anatoly (Peter Welkin), as a triangular love develops among Frederick; his business manager, the Hungarian-born Brit Florence (Nicci Claspell); and Anatoly. Florence ultimately leaves Freddie to be with Anatoly. The plot thickens during the Bangkok match, in 1980, with the arrival of Anatoly's wife, Svetlana (Emily Dykes). The amalgam of romance, rivalry, and Russian détente makes for an odd blend, but the lush and melodic score keeps the musical enthralling from beginning to end.

Welkin sings brilliantly and brings passion and depth to the role of the fiery Anatoly, at his best in the soaring "Anthem." He's matched by the mesmerizing Ewing, a singer of great range and texture, likewise delivering a finely nuanced characterization. Golden-voiced Claspell radiates charm and charisma as the determined Florence, and Dykes is forceful and vocally superb. Dynamic contributions come from Gil Darnell as the Arbiter, Gregory North as Anatoly's manager, Rich Brunner and Christopher Zenner in other roles, and the 12 terrific featured soloists. This bracing revisit to an underrated gem is a genuine treat.

Presented by Musical Theatre of Los Angeles at the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., L.A. Aug. 19–29. Thu.–Sun., 8 p.m. (323) 960-7735. www.plays411.com/chess.

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