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SOUND OFF Special Review: CHESS Rocks 54 Below

Today we are recapping the highlights of this week's lovingly presented 54 SINGS CHESS at 54 Below.

Nobody's Side

"You and I / We've seen it all / Chasing our hearts' desires," Sir Tim Rice's moody and stormy yet thematically expansive and shamelessly romantic lyrics for the concluding dramatic number of his frequently produced yet rarely financially successful rock musical CHESS relate with faded, jaded and yet somehow sincere and well-intentioned optimism. A complex stew - as is the theatrical piece itself that it caps. The reason for the various winning or losing ways of CHESS over the last 30 years since its debut as an international smash hit concept album in 1984 are uncorrelated to the commandingly epic and wildly inventive score composed for the show by Rice alongside composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, mind you. The score is superb. For sure, CHESS actually possesses one of the strongest and most striking scores of any mega-musical of the 1980s - or ever - as recently recounted in my extensive Flash Friday historical review of the show (available here). Ranging in its sonic styles from operetta to hard rock, rap to foreign language lullabies, sweeping choral moments to fiercely introspective solo spotlights and far beyond, CHESS is one of the most startlingly original musicals ever written, with a resoundingly fine score. Nevertheless, the checkered history of the troubled musical has shaded the public's perception of the piece - "Great score, but that book?" is a common, understandable criticism. So, as Tim Rice himself proved in shepherding CHESS: IN CONCERT to the Royal Albert Hall earlier this century back in 2008 in an elaborately produced, all-star concert featuring Idina Menzel, Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Kerry Ellis, among others, so, now, does New York get a new look at CHESS with an able stable of stalwart musical theatre performers via 54 SINGS CHESS - for only one night thanks to a perspicaciously crafted evening by director, actor and producer Scott Coulter. And what a gorgeous gander!

Kicking off with a spirited selection of instrumental musical moments from the wide-ranging and diverse score, the effectively rocking band of four (Mark Hartman/Piano, Larry Lelli/Drums, Alec Berlin/Guitar, Jordan Jancz/Cello&Bass) - with added funky flute solo for "One Night In Bangkok" (thanks to Greg Thymius), natch - was ably abetted by a dozen chorus members (the "Broadway By The Year" chorus, as a matter of fact) who introduced us into the thoughtful, smartly stylized, no doubt painstakingly produced evening. One thing is for sure, Coulter is a true fan's fan when it comes to CHESS and he proved it - time and time again - not only in matching actors with appropriate performance pieces, but taking some daring risks - almost all of which came off without a hitch and a few of which were gobsmackingly, utterly inspired. Offering an informative and unexpectedly hilarious history of the show in his introductory comments, Coulter assembled many members of previous productions of CHESS for this evening - first and foremost, a Cincinnati Conservatory Of Music production from several years ago which boasted Coulter along with a handful of other performers who returned to the CHESS ranks at last, such as two surefire show standouts Matt Bogart and Jessica Hendy. Undoubtedly, perhaps it was for the best original concept album star Barbara Dickson was not in attendance, though - but, given the good natured humor, one assumes she would have appreciated the acknowledgement and ribald humor. For such a serious and adult musical, 54 SINGS CHESS was riotously amusing in moments such as this - and the evening expertly towed the line between extreme beauty and lovable cheese with class, grace and ease. After all, any show with one of the most odd and anomalous hit singles of the 1980s among its features - a rap number, no less - is bound to warrant a little necessity for camp. And, a memorably idiosyncratic element of the musical is the fact that it traverses the musical landscape as it does from riveting choral numbers - the elegiac "Hymn To Chess" and "Endgame" each getting their due - to unique instrumental pieces - "Chess"; ditto - to the aforementioned large swath of musical styles explored and enacted.

Indeed, CHESS is an strange bird and a rare beast when it comes to casting, so to find an assortment of players so diverse in their backgrounds and experience levels who can also bring off the treacherously tricky and oftentimes difficult to play material was certainly a Herculean challenge. Thankfully, one would never notice that fact from the events onstage at 54 Below, appreciably. While the night was fast-paced and ran roughly 80 minutes, more of the score than ever imaginable managed to make an appearance. Coulter's dedication to preserving so much of the music and lyrics from the various versions of the show is commendable, and if there is any complaint to be made about the proceedings it is that Coulter himself did not feature in it more as a vocal artist. Without a doubt, the incredible and provocative duet of Coulter and Jessica Hendy on "I Know Him So Well" was a roof-raising highlight of many. How interesting it would be to see a gender-bended take on the central love triangle someday - even if only in a special concert event like this; particularly if it was done so shrewdly.

Other moments that made the night an unforgettable one for the CHESS fans among us include Jeremy Kushnier and company on a rollicking, wild and word-perfect "One Night In Bangkok", Rachel Ulanet with a gently moving and tear-jerking Florence ballad and NYC newcomer Christopher Lee Viljoen on a positively spine-tingling and spot-on "Pity The Child". Honestly, has that perilously and famously tricky song ever been sung so very well - and with a final note that landed so squarely in the ear and heart? Doubtful. Additionally, a wittily conjured "Quartet" and "Lullaby" gave even more dramatic and musical context to the proceedings, while letting the uniformly excellent cast brightly shine - featured stars Zak Resnick, Miles Phillips, Tyce Green and Cindy Marchionda included.

The fireworks - and the score allows for a lot of them; particularly for high-belting divas, big-voiced baritones and very, very venturesome rock tenors - were unquestionably on full display when Jessica Hendy laid into the emotionally gigantic power ballad "Nobody's Side", giving Idina Menzel and original star Elaine Paige a run for their money. Deliciously diva-tastic. So, too, did Mike Schwitter command utmost respect with his suavely cool and enjoyably acerbic take on "The Arbiter". Also, the baritone contingent was awesomely represented by both Broadway veteran and current JERSEY BOY Matt Bogart along with NBC's THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! breakout star Michael Campayno. Indeed, Bogart's "Anthem" was a moment many in the audience were anxiously awaiting given its prime importance to the score and drama of the show itself and Bogart surpassed all expectations with his take on it. Similarly, Campayno made a compelling case for his casting in a revival someday, as well, tackling the insinuatingly melancholy and simultaneously explosive "Where I Want To Be" with power, preciseness, purpose and poise. Equally absorbing and applause-worthy was Campayno's pairing with Ulanet on the treacherous "Mountain Duet" - accordingly, a minor vocal gaffe at the start required a restart and thereby gave the musical moment an even more piquant level of excitement and the two performers combined were, in a world, electric; ditto Bogart and Hendy on "You & I" at the show's close. And, on the note of electricity, the band rocked hard - as they should with a score this propulsive, still fresh and agelessly hip.

"You & I" poignantly concludes with the slightly biting but all too befitting line, "Still we go on pretending / Stories like ours have happy endings." One thing is for sure: this one certainly did - or, maybe it's not the end at all but a new beginning of a fresh new full production of CHESS made especially for 2015. Your move, Scott Coulter.

Photo Credits: 54 Below

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)