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Theatre Review (Hollywood): Chess in concert by Anderson and Ulvaeus at the Met Theatre

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The musical Chess started as a concept album back in 1984. At the time, concept albums such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were all the rage. The idea of issuing a concept album before a production is still a marketing tool to get money, familiarity, and built-in audiences for new material. Jekyll and Hyde was a more recent example.

After the album Chess was a huge success, a staged version was done in London and ran for three years. An altered version followed on Broadway but lasted only a couple of months. Attempts have been made to find the “perfect version” in hopes that someday there might be a successful revival. For now the way of presentation seems to be in live concert, and having seen both, I think I prefer the concert. Like the game itself, it requires just certain well-thought-out moves instead of a full-blown extravagant production, like the one originally presented on Broadway.

The very tuneful show, which is part Broadway, part classical, and even part choral, was written by Benny Andersson and Byorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame. The book is by Tim Rice. Given the recent upsurge in interest in the “Abba sound” it is not surprising that Chess is once again being presented.

Earlier this year Reprise put on a concert version and now the more modest Musical Theatre of Los Angeles is having a go. MTLA has hired 14 musicians and used some of the best singers and dancers in the group, with a few imports for the leads. Robert Marra is the director and Greg Haake is the musical director. Tania Possick adds some fine choreography to give the static chess matches some movement.

The overall result is truly amazing and quite satisfying. Frankly, I was more than pleasantly surprised given the recent, less than stellar Oklahoma. The singing ranged from good to first-rate. Peter Wilkin was especially strong as Anatoly and Blake McIver Ewing gave it his all as Freddy. The two women were outstanding.: Emily Dykas as Svetlana was riveting, and Nicci Claspell was also compelling as Florence. Both of these women had marvelous composure. There is also fine work by Gil Darnell as the Arbiter, Gregory North as Molokov, and Rich Brunner as Walter. Special praise to Greg Haake as musical director. This difficult music was flawlessly presented.

Chess has been extended to six more performances in August 19, 20. 21. And 27, 28, and 29 at the Met Theater in Hollywood.

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