Monday, July 06, 2009

Check this, mate

By Tony Buchsbaum

The musical Chess is back. Not that it was ever terribly far away. From concept album in the mid-80s to British stage musical, to Broadway adaptation, to London revival, and now, to a concert version now available on CD and DVD.

With music by Abba masters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and countless other iconic muscials), there's never been anything wrong with Chess's pedigree. Still, the show never inspired the rabid following other musicals of that time did, such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables. I think that's because Chess is complicated: It's a love story crossed with a metaphor crossed with politics. Or is it just a political metaphor for a love story? I never thought it mattered, for in the end it's one of those shows you really have to pay attention to. It demands your attention—and the return-on-attention is considerable.

Certainly the show's ambiguities are what led original stage director Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line) to tackle it—but the show had the bad luck of seeing its director withdraw due to illness in mid-prep. Bennett was replaced by Trevor Nunn, no slouch, but the latter was left, really, to pick up the pieces left by the former.

Anyway, long story short, Chess has risen again, revised, restored, and resplendant in a new production that ran at London's Royal Albert Hall in May 2008. This concert version was a a stunning production that blended musical and concert by pairing stage and classical voices. Josh Groban plays Anatoly, a world chess champ; Idina Menzel plays Florence, the right hand of Anatoly's rival; and Adam Pascal plays the rival, Freddie Stumper.

Groban's work here is almost a revelation: His voice is in top form, and it appears he can act. (Who knew?) Though they're wonderful, it must be said that Menzel and Pascal struggle a bit to match Groban's power, but then both have high-pitched and slightly nasal qualities that are clear when set against Groban's full-throated vocals.

Each major character faces serious choices—and each agonizes over which move to make next...knowing his or her move with affect someone else's. Therein lies the metaphor—and this musical's powerful engine.

I, for one, think this production of Chess gets it right. Presented as a concert, it lacks in a traditional musical framework, but you won't notice because it makes up for it with drama, passion, and style. I didn't miss the theatrics; I was swept along by the story and the songs that amplify it.

The DVD features the entire May 2008 production, with orchestra, massive choir, and actors all onstage at once, a minimal set, and more than two hours of constant singing. The evening is presented on a 2-CD set and a single-CD highlights version. You can't go wrong with either (my advice: splurge on the 2-CD set). Each features new and thrilling performances of the show's signature songs, which include "Someone Else's Story," "One Night in Bangkok," "You and I," "I Know Him So Well," and "Anthem."

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