Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderrson
I think we’ve just about got it there, declared lyricist Tim Rice before this concert performance at the Albert Hall. Given that it is twenty-four years since the original concept album was made, and that the musical has undergone numerous incarnations and experiments since, he was clearly cracking a joke. Only the evening that followed, however, would tell if he could afford such a luxury.
Bjorn Ulvaeus’ and Benny Anderrson’s first venture into musical theatre is about chess, love and the cold war. Capturing ideological tensions through a world chess championship in 1979 between an American and Russian, it reveals how the cold war also destroyed individuals’ lives by affecting personal relationships. When the American (world champion at the start) loses to the Russian after his own successes and insecurities destroy him, the Russian promptly ‘steals’ the American’s female chief delegate and defects to the west. But though declaring ‘my land’s only borders lie around my heart’, the Russian then finds that he can only retain his crown by devoting himself entirely to chess and disregarding everything around him, including wife, lover and Soviet pressure.
This production was a three hour tour de force that saw strong performances from the leads. Idina Menzel as Florence Vassy (the American delegate who goes with the Russian) was captivating. If slightly too abrasive in the quieter numbers, there was no disputing the quality of the voice, and the magic of her performance made us appreciate Florence as the most wronged character in the whole affair. Josh Groban gave both purposefulness of character and clarity of voice as the Russian, Sergievsky, whilst Adam Pascal as the American hit all the high notes in this most demanding of tenor roles. David Bedella presented a convincing portrayal of KGB severity as the agent, Molokov, and Kerry Ellis as Sergievsky’s wife was simply exhilarating. The only weak player was Marti Pellow as the arbiter whose over-amplified voice seemed too weak, at least on this occasion, to carry the part off.
But whilst the evening was made through sheer power of performance, founded on the strength of the music, it still had its faults as a musical show. Rather than seeing smooth variation from number to number, we received chunks of one style at a time. At the start all of the main characters provided the backing for each others’ numbers, and there was very little real choreography. But then from halfway through the first act the dancing was almost allowed to take over.
In the second act many elements still seemed as if they were being hammered into place. Introducing the songs ‘Someone Else’s Story’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’ so late in the show seemed like a desperate attempt just to include them. They could have been put to better effect earlier on. Similarly, whilst an improvement on previous endings for the American, it was still weak just to see him give Sergievsky advice on how to win as a way of showing that chess was still the most important thing to both of them. Some of the verbal commentaries, despite often being given context by being delivered by television presenters, felt awkward as if the creators knew they had to make certain points but couldn’t think of another way to do so. In particular, the final scenes relied too much on short dialogues to tie up loose ends.
Of course, these criticisms have to be placed within the context of this being a concert performance, where the choreography for example can’t be at full force. There are, however, rumours of a West End revival next year, and, if so, the producers would do well to take stock of the weaker aspects of this production. The tendency over time has been to insert more songs into the musical without losing any, and so the show we see today is very long. This is fine for people who already know and love it, but when the length also contributes to the flabbiness, a West End version would require severe trimming.
A fantastic night this may have been, but there is still much to do if Chess is to go from having a cult following to becoming a mainstream hit