Broadway reviews

Chess. By Humm

The Shubert Organization, 3 Knights Ltd. and Robert Fox Ltd. presentation of a musical drama in two acts, with book by Richard Nelson, music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice. Staged by Trevor Nunn. Dance staging, Lynne Taylor-Corbett; settings, Robin Wagner; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, David Hersey; sound, Andrew Bruce; musical direction and supervisor, Paul Bogaev; orchestrations and arrangements, Anders Eljas; executive producers, Gathcell & Neufeld; production stage manager, Alan Hall; casting, Johhson-Liff & Zerman; publicity, Bill Evans & Assocs. Opened April 28th, 1988 at the Imperial Theater, New York. $US50 top.

George Vassey

Neal Ben-Ari

Young Florence

Gina Gallagher

Freddie

Philip Casnoff

Florence

Judy Kuhn

Anatoly

David Carroll

Molokov

Harry Goz

Nickolai

Kurt Johns

Walter

Dennis Parlato

Arbiter

Paul Harman

Svetlana

Marcia Mitzman

Joe & Harold (Embassy Officials)

Richard Muenz & Eric Johnson, respectively

Ensemble: John Aller, Neal Ben-Ari, Suzanne Briar, Steve Clemente, Katherine Lynne Condit, Ann Crumb, David Cryer, R.F. Daley, Deborah Geneviere, Kurt Johns, Eric Johnson, Paul Laureano, Rosemary Loar, Judy McLane, Jessica Molaskey, Richard Muenz, Kip Niven, Francis Ruivivar, Alex Santoriello, Wysandria Woolsey. Swings: Karen Babcock, Craig Wells.

Musical numbers: The Story Of Chess; Press Conference; Where I Want To Be; How Many Women; Merchandisers’ Song; U.S. Vs U.S.S.R.; Chess Hymn; Quartet (A Model Of Decorum & Tranquility); You Want To Lose Your Only Friend?; Someone Else’s Story; One Night in Bangkok; Terrace Duet; So You Got What You Want; Nobody’s Side; Anthem; Arbiter’s Song; Hungarian Folk Song; Heaven Help My Heart; No Contests; You And I; A Whole New Board Game; Let’s Work Together; I Know Him So Well; Pity The Child; Lullaby (Apukad Eros Kezen); Endgame; You And I (reprise), Anthem (reprise).

Technological glitz, high-decibel pop music and an earnest book aren’t enough to make a hit out of Chess. The London musical has been revised and improved for Broadway and will draw initial business, but it lacks the ingredients for longrun prosperity.

The show offers insistent, rhythmically propulsive Euro-pop music and a love triangle story against the background of U.S.-Soviet rivalry as reflected in a championship chess tourney. The book, rewritten for Broadway by Yank playwright Richard Nelson, is much more substantial than most latter-day libretti, but its solemn tone clashes with the trite and clumsily manipulative songs.

Trevor Nunn has done another highly proficient if overly slick job of whizbang staging, and there’s a technically admirable scenic concept by Robin Wagner. Everything about the show on the tech level is expertly accomplished, another manifestation of the stagecraft legerdemain which has dominated the musical theater of late. The $US50 top undoubtedly is necessary.

What the show isn’t is much fun. The story of the 3-sided relationship among an idealistic Hungarian-American chess coach, a crude and arrogant American champion, and a noble minded Russian player who defects to the west, is ploddingly dull an soapy beneath the flashy surface. At close to three hours’ running time, Chess asks more of audience patience than it offers in entertainment.

The songs, by former ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and English lyricist Tim Rice, are a mostly disappointing assortment of unmelodic and flavorless numbers that seem distinctly unoriginal. The few exceptions to the aural-wallpaper sound, notably the pretty duet I Know Him So Well and the ballad Heaven Help My Heart, do hold and please the audience. Rice’s lyrics, sad to relate, are flat, unadorned by imagery, pedestrian.

Nelson has done more than a mere workmanlike job on the book rewrite: he has attempted with some success to develop characters of psychological depth, with an overlay of pointedly sardonic political commentary about the basic similarities of motive among American and Russian power-holders.

The young woman and her conflicted Russian lover are real human creations, while the nasty American egomaniac is colorful if too 1-note. But the oppressive framework in which they function – loud and unlikable music and nonstop scenic razzmatazz – squashes the humanity of the characters and forestalls the kind of unreserved audience empathy that a hit musical should command.

When, for instance, the heroine has a reunion in Budapest with her Hungarian father, a former street-fighter against the Russians in the 1956 revolt who’s been imprisoned ever since and whom she believed dead, it’s a potentially moving scene. But the ABBA-men and Rice give them a weepy and phony lullaby to sing that recalls the famous National Lampoon magazine cover of a pistol held to a lovable pooch’s head: “if you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

Visually the show’s initially fascinating as Wagner’s phalanx of towers – each piloted from within by a stagehand – swerve and curve into distinct configurations with astonishing coordination. But before too long the towers begin to take over the show and compete with the human story. They get in the way.

As in Les Misérables, Nunn makes stage-savvy use of a massive turntable to keep the action moving forward with filmlike speed. But unlike Les Miz, when the turntable stops the music doesn’t pick up the audience.

Judy Kuhn, coming off attention-getting performances in Rags and Les Miz, has the best songs and the best role, and her beautiful pop-soprano voice is the show’s chief pleasure. She acts the sympathetic, gutsy role with spirit and heart.

David Carroll, as the good-guy Russian torn between love of the American and love of his country, sings stirringly and acts the part with the right notes of dignity and self-doubt. It’s a big leap forward for this musical leading man.

As the ugly, self-loving American (whom Nelson should have tempered with some complexity) Philip Casnoff has the right wolfish snarl.

There’s a highly praiseworthy performance from Harry Goz as the rueful and world-weary Russian official, and some overacting from Dennis Parlato as a villainous American CIA type. Marcia Mitzman earns sympathy as the Russian’s forgiving wife.

Chess is a show of too many paradoxes: a serious book awkwardly fitted under unserious and lyrically banal songs, a loud, scenically grandiose presentation that’s essentially dull. It won’t disappoint everyone, however, and will get off to a start at the

boxoffice. Then word of mouth will begin to spread, and the verdict probably won’t be good. Transcribed for ABBA World

Variety (New York) · Wednesday, 4 May 1988 (Pages 552 & 556)


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