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ABBA and Tim Rice musical "Chess" staged by Slow Burn Theatre

On one side, you have “Chess,” a cult-fave-rave with music from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics from Tim Rice being staged by Slow Burn Theatre, a talent magnet of a company based in Boca Raton.

On the other side, you have a musical that is so stout and dense no light can enter it. The Sublime fatalism is there, underscoring a story in which a chess tournament substitutes for the battleground during the Cold War. But the book never quite coalesces, recent headlines coming out of Crimea notwithstanding.

“Chess” is playing through April 5 at West Boca Performing Arts Theater before moving to the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center on April 10 for a four-day run from April 10.

Unlike most musicals, “Chess” isn’t supposed to feel effortless. This is much closer to a pop-rock opera with little spoken dialogue. You would be wise to read the synopsis inside the program before the lights dim.

On one level, the battle is between American chess grandmaster Freddie (Rick Pena) and his Soviet counterpart, Anatoly (Matthew Korinko). On another level, it is a love triangle between the two men and Florence (Amy Miller Brennan).

Here there is Walter (Sean Dorazio) is with the TV network covering the match, and pulling for an American champion to boost ratings and satisfy advertisers. There is Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Elvin Negron), ruthlessly schemes to secure a win for his Soviet side, at any cost.

That is the threat hanging over everything, that chess — and, indeed, “Chess” — is about war via proxy, whether it is between men or nations. Everyone else is a pawn, including Anatoly’s estranged Russian wife, Svetlana (Carla Bordonada), who is moved into place in a dirty but strategic move.

It’s all a stalemate. So whether to see “Chess” is your move. But know that the choreography is too ambitious, and the set design has too many competing ideas competing. Combine the two, and the result is a serried mass.

The costuming is full of verve, with neo-punk and post-industrial references (with a tinge of fashioney fascism thrown in). This means black clothing, often glossy, with lots of hardware. Some of the fits and proportions are off, but we can overlook that if the cast can.

On the plus side, the vocals are powerful where needed and beautifully lyrical where warranted. The cast has a knack, a real gift, for injecting acting into the songs. Like I said, Slow Burn Theatre is a real talent magnet. While the performers supply a deft hand, the show offers an iron fist.

Yet with all that operatic passion flying around onstage, it all flitters away before the audience can get a hold of it, even after a little more than two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

IF YOU GO:

"Chess the Musical"

When: Through April 5; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Sundays in Boca Raton; April 10-13, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee April 13 in Aventura

Where: West Boca Performing Arts Theater, 12811 W. Glades Road, Boca Raton; Aventura Arts and Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St.

Cost: $40 ($35 for seniors; $25 for students) in Boca Raton; $34.50-$39.50 in Aventura

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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