Show abroad

Chess. By Pit

London

Three Knights Ltd., the Shubert Organization and Robert Fox presentation of a musical in two acts, with book and lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Staged by Trevor Nunn. Scenic design, Robin Wagner; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, David Hersey; sound, Andrew Bruce; orchestrations & arrangements by Anders Eljas; choreography, Molly Molloy; music direction, John Owen Edwards; executive producers, Judy Craymer, Tyler Gatchell. Opened May 14th, 1986, at the Prince Edward Theater, London; £18.50 top.

Mayor of Merano

Richard Mitchell

Frederick Trumper

Murray Head

Florence

Elaine Paige

Molokov

John Turner

Sergievsky

Tommy Körberg

Walter de Courcy

Kevin Colson

Arbiter

Tom Jobe

TV presenter

Peter Karrie

Civil servants

Richard Lyndon, Paul Wilson

Svetlana

Siobhan McCarthy

With: Aliki, Leon Andrew, Julie Armstrong, Yvonne Bachem, Julia Birch, Richard Courtice, Catherine Coffey, Annie Cox, Hugh Craig, Geoffrey Dallamore, Carol Duffy, Garrick Forbes, Wayne Fowkes, Philip Griffith, Donna King, Madeline Loftin, Patrick Long, Kim Lonsdale, Gail Mortley, Kerri Murphy, Mhairi Nelson, Anita Pashley, William Pool, Jane Powell, Grainne Rennihan, Richard Sampson, Jacqui Scott, Duncan Smith, Sandy Strallen, Hilary Western, Paul Wilson.

Musical numbers: Merano; Frederick’s Suite/Press Conference; Where I Want To Be; The Arbiter’s Chambers; Chess; A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility; Florence And Molokov; Nobody’s Side; Mountain Duet; Chess 2; Pity The Child; Embassy Lament/Heaven Help My Child; Anthem; One Night in Bangkok; Florence And Anatoly/You And I; The Soviet Machine; Interview; The Deal; I Know Him So Well; Frederick And Anotoly; Endgame; You And I/Epilog.

If set designers have stolen the show in some recent London musicals, a modest virtue of Chess is that its potent physical values don’t reduce the story and characters to so much chopped liver. Despite an obvious book, the latest tuner to go the album-to-stage route has musicality, name appeal and enough hype working for it to assure a long and lucrative West End run.

The show is sponsored by London producer Robert Fox, co-authors Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and the Shubert Organization, which may have to order some doctoring for the planned Broadway edition.

Chess proffers the game as a metaphor for East-West conflict, and for the frozen attitudes that perpetuate same. It’s also the one Michael Bennett originally was to stage until withdrawing on the eve of rehearsals (assertedly for health reasons), leaving audiences hereafter to speculate on what might have been.

Suffice that second-choice director Trevor Nunn of the Royal Shakespeare Co., who staged Cats and Starlight Express for the commercial theater, has devised a fluent, occasionally stylized and usually satisfying presentation. But he’s been unable to lick the problems of book and extraneous elements that only pad an overlong performance.

Chess is part opera and part chorale, a familiar mode for lyricist Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, etc.), this time in collaboration with Andersson and Ulvaeus of the since-disbanded Swedish pop group ABBA, whose music is consistently listenable. Credit for which is shared by orchestrator-arranger Anders Eljas.

The wit, style and humor of the lyrics agreeably suit the aria-and-recitative operatic form, but Rice’s libretto is something else, a jagged fragment of political intrigue, opportunism and manipulation in the cause of superpower competition that in both sentiment and plot terms is persistently prosaic and devoid of political irony. The book proves tough on some fine actor-singers trying to overcome the challenge of stereotypical characters. To be blunt, they can’t.

The pat drama chiefly involves an American world chess champ, a tantrum-throwing type, who loses both his girl and title to a Soviet defector. They are performed respectively by Murray Head, Elaine Paige and Tommy Körberg, all repeating their original album chores for the RCA label. Of the three, Head takes the acting and Körberg the vocal honors. Paige is a good, sure singer with power, but acting conviction comes less naturally.

No prize for guessing the ugly loudmouth Yank not only reforms but goes on to help the Russian successfully defend his crown a year later. Throughout the narrative, hopes of more adult and original material are continually disappointed by the convolutions of an overworked formula plot. The story is told best in song.

Show’s commercial outlook figures to be helped by the fact that two hit singles emerged from the original album, an impressionistic One Night In Bangkok and a distaff duet titled I Know Him So Well. Both are second act numbers that function strongly in context, though neither is the rafter-shaker that might have been expected.

The action switches from an Italian alpine town, where the first big match is turned by television into a commercialized media circus, to Bangkok in Thailand, where the second act opens (in the tradition of 19th century grand opera) with an Oriental ballet. Albeit pleasing and adroitly danced, it’s also distinctly superfluous. One or two of the show’s early crowd scenes, if not similarly dispensable, at least could benefit from some cutting.

How to make the game of chess itself, even in short takes, dramatically interesting is solved by scenic designer Robin Wagner, who turns the trick by deploying working TV cameras and mikes, a pre-taped kaleidoscope of clips, and vast banks of TV monitors into exciting as well as symbolic décor. The show also makes clever use of rolling and revolving sets on a stage that rises and tilts hydraulically.

A versatile assortment of Theoni V. Aldredge costumes (especially for the ballet sequence) and David Hersey’s dramatic light effects make substantial impact. One way or another, in fact (and to paraphrase the film moguls), the reputed $US4,000,000 budget appears to be all up there on stage.

Secondary roles, no less clichéd than the leads, are competently handled and sung by John Turner as a Soviet functionary, Kevin Colson as a conniving broadcasting exec, Siobhan McCarthy as the distressed wife of the Soviet champ (reunited by the conclusion), and Tom Jobe as a chess tournament umpire.

Molly Molloy’s dance routines, though far from electric, are still perky and well executed, while the choral work is strong and sharp, ditto the band in the pit. Transcribed for ABBA World

Variety (New York) · Wednesday, 21 May 1986 (Page 100)


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