‘Chess’ at Dundalk Community Theatre by Amanda Gunther

THREE AND A HALF STARS
One little move effects so many people’s lives. A statement proven true as the Dundalk Community Theatre presents Chess The Musical. With beautiful and utterly haunting music composed by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA, lyrics by Tim Rice, and a tightly-crafted cleverly dramatic book by Richard Nelson, this cult classic musical delves deep into the world of the game of chess with rich thematic elements that make the story compelling and captivating. Directed by John Amato with Musical Direction by Glenette Rohner Schumacher, the production provides exposure to a rarely produced musical with a stunning score.

(l to r) Walter (Timoth David Copney) Freddie (Ken Ewing) Florence (Amy Agnese) Anatoly (Steve Antonsen) Molokov (Jim Handakas) and Svetlana (Lisa Pastella-Young). Photo courtesy of Dundalk Community Theatre.

(l to r) Walter (Timothy David Copney) Freddie (Ken Ewing) Florence (Amy Agnese) Anatoly (Steve Antonsen) Molokov (Jim Handakas) and Svetlana (Lisa Pastella-Young). Photo courtesy of Dundalk Community Theatre.

Conductor Tim Viets leads the sensational and stunning orchestra as they produce an  impeccable sound that carries the majority of the emotions of the show, the orchestra is truly stunning, especially during the overture. Viets conducts the orchestra with vigor and drive, coaxing fully innovative sounds during key numbers as well as during scene changes. The orchestra pumps adrenaline into each of the numbers, solidifying the emotions of each song.

Scenic Designer Marc W. Smith infuses the overarching motif of the game of chess into his design work with an enormous vertically stretching chess board in hollowed black and white tiles. The various painted mural drops to highlight scene changes from the peaceful church interior and the verdant country near the rive, and they accentuate the complexity of the play’s locations.

Although the leads are well-cast and sing well, the ensemble lacks vocal power and are often unheard. During major numbers like “Nobody’s Side” and “One Night In Bangkok” it’s almost impossible to tell if they are singing. And in an attempt to duplicate the Broadway production’s choreography –  the recycled material is executed sloppily and with unsuccessful attempts at synchronization, as was seen in a sloppily performed “One Night In Bangkok.”

The soloist performers are either good actors or good singers, but rarely both. The one exception is Lisa Pastella-Young who plays Svetlana. Not appearing until the second act, Pastella-Young is a brilliant performer with a powerfully emotive voice and a fierce stage presence. She shows deep remorse and longing in her voice during her duet “You and I,” and gives a sensational rendition of “I Know Him So Well,” making you truly feel her pain.

Florence (Amy Agnese) achieves flawless vocal perfection when it comes to her pitch, enunciation, and overall ability to sing the incredibly arduous songs, particularly “Heaven Help My Heart” and “I Know Him So Well.” Unfortunately, she and Steve Antonsen (Anatoly) lack chemistry, especially during their romantic moments, leaving “Terrace Duet” sounding hollow.

Tom Wyatt (The Arbiter) has the exact opposite problem as Agnese. His singing is strained at best, and his voice cracked during “The Story of Chess” and “The Arbiter’s Song.” However, Wyatt’s over-the-top melodramatic presence on the stage is both hilarious and commanding.

Jim Handakas (Molokov) sang strong harmonies in “Quartet (Model of Decorum and Tranquility”), but meanders in and out of the Russian character. His accent wavers from something Russian to something British, and overacted.

chess_poster_2Freddie (Ken Ewing) impressively portrays the jerk that everyone should hate, and  does a tremendous job of convincing the audience that he is a callous ass, and he finds true redemption with his emotional rendition of “Pity the Child.” I do wish that he would have brought more emotion to his duets with Florence: “How Many Women?” and “You Want To Love Your Only Friend?”

Giving a winning performance among the males is Steve Antonsen (Anatoly). The extraordinary sound he produces during “Where I Want To Be” is haunting – filled with lost hopes and dreams, tempered against a bursting inferno of anger and regret. During “Anatoly and Molokov,” a duet with Handakas, Antonsen provides a full boisterous balance to Handakas’ villainous sound. His ability to capture emotions in his song is the best displayed in this production.

There is some fine singing in Dundalk Community Theatre’s production of Chess, and if you have never heard this extraordinary score before, or if you are a fan of the show, it’s a worth the trip to Baltimore to hear these glorious songs performed on the stage.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Chess The Musical plays through May 5, 2013 at Dundalk Community Theatre at Community College of Baltimore County in Building K, at the John E. Ravekes Theatre – 7200 Sollers Point Road, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 840-2787, or purchase them online.

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