London critics & reviewers mixed for Chess: Rich pan clouds Broadway outlook


World preem of Chess provoked a mixed verdict from the critics and one of the bigger West End mob scenes in recent memory for the musical’s May 14th, 1986 glitzy opening at the Prince Edward.

The cops and their barricades were out in strength as narrow Old Compton Street in Soho bulged with onlookers and lensmen.

Adding to the crush were reps from the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry with banners and petitions urging Moscow to permit Russian chess grandmaster Boris Gulko and his wife to emigrate.

The tuner is about a chess match that symbolizes East-West conflict. One of the lead characters is a Soviet champ who defects to the West.

The show, with book and lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and staging by Trevor Nunn, is cosponsored by the Shubert Organization, which plans a Broadway edition.

Most of the naysaying notices were from papers generally regarded by legit as influential, with comments ranging from “far too long” and “shallow” to the Guardian’s conclusion that “a musical is only as good as its book, and here one is confronted by an inchoate mess.”

Several papers were at the other end of the scale, including the Daily Telegraph which said the show “compels admiration.” The Times of London said “it turns out to be a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into an intelligent form of life.”

The Financial Times, however, found Chess to be a “decadent Western musical.”

Pan in New York Times

More to the point for the show’s Broadway prospects is a negative review it received in the May 20th, 1986 New York Times from legit critic Frank Rich, who’s on his annual showgoing visit to London.

Rich judged the music “enjoyable,” but panned the show overall as a “mixture of flashy showbiz histrionics and political naiveté… not a  show to incite strong passions from anyone except those many advance ticket buyers who come to cheer their favourite hit songs from the record.”

Just how a thumbs-down verdict in the influential times will effect the management’s Broadway plas remains to be seen. A plan by Rich of Starlight Express two years ago undoubtedly deferred that show’s Broadway manifestation, although it’s now scheduled for next season. (Rich knocked Starlight again in the May 20th, 1986 column.)

Last year he panned the hit London musical Me And My Girl, but the producers are nonetheless proceeding with a Broadway edition, due to open August 10th, 1986 at the new Marriott Marquis. Transcribed for ABBA World

Variety (New York) · Wednesday, 21 May 1986 (Pages 101 & 104)

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