BWW Review: CHESS at 11th Hour Theatre Company
At times, concert productions can be dull. People holding binders at microphones can only do so much to illuminate a story. 11th Hour Theatre Company's Chess in concert bypasses these pitfalls by producing what turned out to be a showcase of Philadelphia's newest vocal talent -- talent that leaves the audience in awe.
Chess is a 1986 musical that explores the tension between the East and West during the Cold War by following American and Russian chess players as they compete for the title of chess world champion. While the musical had little large-scale success, it has gained a cult following for its difficult-to-sing score with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.
11th Hour's production uses these beloved songs to accent the vocal gravitas of its young cast. Amanda Robles, who plays Florence, the Russian's love interest, wows as she expertly navigates a role played by Broadway legends like Elaine Paige, Judy Kuhn and Idina Menzel. Despite having to belt up to a high E, Robles brings feeling with well-crafted vocal phrasing and uses the full vocal toolbox to make her performance anything but lackluster.
Luke Bradt plays Anatoly, the Russian. Fresh off a turn as the comedic Igor in Walnut Street Theatre's Young Frankenstein, Bradt showed he could hit all the right notes as Chess's tragic baritone. When Bradt belts, the audience listens. His voice is clear and strong, but his technical perfection appears effortless. Bradt's Anatoly is the one everyone wants to root for.
Then comes a fresh performance from Jack Henry, who plays the pompous American Freddie Trumper. His powerful-yet-pretty voice perfectly balances the heavy solos by Florence and Anatoly, making his scenes some of the most fun to watch.
This smorgasbord of talent is topped off with a surprise entrance by Rachel DeMasi, who plays Anatoly's wife Svetlana. After an hour and a half of listening to the same few voices, DeMasi's second act songs are welcomed with open arms. Her steady performance foils Florence's unstable range and DeMasi's nice tone of voice is like dessert after digesting Robles' blow-the-roof-off high notes.
11th Hour also gave several Temple University students their professional debut in this production, further allowing for a sample of Philadelphia's theater future.