Chess – Live from Royal Albert Hall

track listing
1. Prologue
2. The Story Of Chess
3. Merano/What A Scene! What A Joy!
4. Commie Newspapers
5. Press Conference
6. Molokov And Anatoly
7. Where I Want To Be
8. Difficult And Dangerous Times
9. The Arbiter
10. Hymn To Chess
11. The Merchandisers
12. Global TV Fanfare
13. Chess Game #1
14. The Arbiter (Reprise)
15. Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility)
16. Florence And Molokov
17. 1956 – Budapest Is Rising
18. Nobody’s Side
19. Mountain Duet
20. Chess Game #2
21. Florence Quits
22. Pity The Child #1
23. Embassy Lament
24. Heaven Help My Heart
25. Anatoly And The Press
26. Anthem
27. Golden Bangkok
28. One Night In Bangkok
29. One More Opponent
30. You And I
31. The Soviet Machine
32. The Interview
33. Someone Else’s Story
34. The Deal (No Deal)
35. Pity The Child #2
36. I Know Him So Well
37. Talking Chess
38. Endgame #1
39. Endgame #2
40. Endgame #3/Chess Game #3
41. You And I (Reprise)
42. Walter And Florence
43. Anthem (Reprise)

The musical Chess, with music by ABBA’s Bjrn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyrics by Tim Rice, is perhaps best known for the tumultuous twists and turns it has taken over the past twenty-five years.

Centered around a Cold War-era love triangle headed off by two chess players, one Russian and one American, and the elusive woman that comes between them, the show has had its share of successes and failures.

Beginning its life as a concept album in 1984, replete with synth-filled pop orchestrations and featuring Elaine Paige in the role of Florence, Chess was an instant sensation, particularly in the U.K., where the original 1986 London production, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring several of the album’s original stars, ran for nearly three years and was followed by a successful tour.

Songs like One Night In Bangkok and I Know Him So Well placed high in the pop charts as well, paving the way for popular success.In the U.S., however, Chess has had more of a cult following. The 1988 Broadway production, featuring a revised storyline helmed by book writer Richard Nelson, closed after three months due to tepid reviews and heavy discounting.

Subsequent productions have tried to improve upon the musical’s story, tweaking the order of songs and details of particular plot points, so this new concert presentation represents a welcome addition to Chess fans’ collections because of the proclamation of its lyricist Tim Rice that this is hitherto the most definitive version of the show’s score.
Retaining international singing star Josh Groban as Anatoly (the Russian) and Broadway actor Adam Pascal as Freddie (the American), both of whom performed in a New York Actor’s Fund benefit performance of the musical that took place in 2003, an impressive cast of singers was assembled at the Royal Albert Hall in London (which has always been more kind to the show than New York), including Tony-winner Idina Menzel (Wicked, Rent) as Florence, American actor Clarke Peters as Walter, British singer Marti Pellow as the Arbiter, Kerry Ellis (Wicked) as Svetlana, and David Bedella (Jerry Springer the Opera) as Molokov.

The concert, which took place on 12 and 13 May 2008, was recorded over the course of its two nights of performances, to be aired on national TV in Britain and the U.S. as well as for CD release. Deluxe editions featuring karaoke tracks and sheet music for several of the show’s songs are also available from the official websites of Josh Groban and Idina Menzel.

Joined by the 50-piece City of London Philharmonic and 100-voice West End Chorus, the recording as a whole is lushly produced and aurally satisfying. Including all of the show’s incidental music and recitative, this Chess certainly represents a sweeping and rather impressive presentation of the show, exactly the sort of redemptive stroke the show’s creative team must have been hoping for in assembling a top-notch cast for such a high-profile revisiting of their brainchild.

Josh Groban as Anatoly acquits himself particularly well. His classical-pop records have sold millions of copies around the world, so it’s clear that there’s an audience for his brand of vocal styling. But who knew this sometimes tepid-seeming crooner had some acting chops as well. In the connective dialogue portions of the recording, Groban succeeds in painting Russian chess player Anatoly with fuller brushstrokes than some of his cast mates, and his vocals in songs like Where I Want To Be and Anthem are impressive, full of bravura and lacking the histrionics of some of Groban’s previous recording efforts.

If Adam Pascal doesn’t quite erase memories of Murray Head’s rendering of the character on the original concept recording, his portrayal of American chess player Freddie is also fine. His rendering of One Night In Bangkok is somewhat less polished than Head’s, perhaps due to the fact that it’s a live performance, but Pascal has an edgy rock voice that suits his character’s rangy vocal passages and somewhat irritable character traits.

Completing the love triangle as Florence is Idina Menzel, a Tony-winner for her performance in Wicked, whose presence here is fine but occasionally less than impressive. She belts songs like Nobody’s Side and Heaven Help My Heart out of the park, but her rather juvenile delivery and less-than-impressive line readings tend to grate upon repeated listens. Still, she hardly distracts from the fine quality of the CD as a whole.

Rounding out the cast are Kerry Ellis’s superb Svetlana, whose Someone Else’s Story is a highlight, a somewhat underpowered Marti Pellow as the Arbiter, sinister David Bedella’s over-the-top take on Molokov, and deep-voiced Clarke Peters, who does a fine job in the minor role of Walter.

The storyline of the musical is mostly incomprehensible from merely listening to the show on disc. Perhaps its somewhat convoluted plot line accounts, to a certain extent, for its limited success on stage. It’s recommended that casual listeners sit down and flip through the basic outline of the show’s synopsis before attempting to fully appreciate the score.

Still, as an anthemic pop opera, Chess comes across well on this new, supposedly definitive recording. If the cast occasionally lacks the power of its concept cast equivalents, the lush orchestra and chorus alone – and the chance to hear the score in its absolute entirety – more than make up for any deficits, making this recording at the very least a welcome recording to Chess fans, as well as to those interested in hearing Josh Groban’s rather impressive take on a high-powered, energetic score.

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