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Maybe he walked, cable cars scare him. (Concert review) 
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Post Maybe he walked, cable cars scare him. (Concert review)
As I'm sure everyone knows, the London Chess DVD and CD were released today. For me, one of the little personal highlights was Florence's minor line in "Mountain Duet" - "He couldn't wait to join you up here / Maybe he walked, cable cars scare him." I always liked the line and was disappointed when the 2001 Danish cast album used the concept album line ("All I can say is moments ago / He was right here, ready and waiting"), which is suitable but doesn't really have the little flourish that the London line did.

For the concert itself, of course one must start with the performers. Josh Groban's Anatoly is still a decade younger than he needs to be, but his voice is good and, while I was not blown away by his "Anthem," he got the job done for the most part. Adam Pascal's Freddie is not as spot-on as Philip Casnoff was for the role, and lacks the unique qualities Murray Head had (at least on the concept album, before he blew out his voice trying to play the role live). Both are good, better than their counterparts in the Danish concert cast and the 1994 Swedish concert in Gothenburg. Neither is definitive in the role.

Most of the side parts were played well. David Bedella's Molokov lacked a bit in the deep bass, but he managed to seem progressively more like a lovable stage Russian as the night went on, of course peaking in "The Soviet Machine." Marti Pellow's Arbiter is a little thin on the vocals but made up for it, certainly, with moxie if nothing else. Clarke Peters does fine on what is left of Walter's part, which isn't much. And Kerry Ellis simply knocked "Someone Else's Story" out of the park, with the best delivery of the whole show. Her parts in "I Know Him So Well" and "Endgame" were likewise top notch, and it almost seemed a shame to use her in such a small part.

Idina Menzel's Florence, though, was probably the biggest problem. I enjoyed her work in Rent and Wicked, and was honestly a bit surprised at how she came off in the concert. Her voice was nasally, pretty much throughout, although she pulled out a respectable performance of "Heaven Help My Heart" the constant use of head tones and inability to stick with the printed song in places really put a pall on the rest of the proceedings. Like it or not, Chess is very much Florence's show, and without having a certain hard-edged charm, which Menzel lacked in vocals and acting, there's a barrier you just can't get across. "Nobody's Side" - I don't even think there is a comparison; the Helen Sjöholm and Judy Kuhn recordings are very nearly sublime, while Menzel's is almost joyless. (It doesn't help that she moves away from the written music, when "Nobody's" is very rigidly structured to benefit from some amazing harmonies.) She benefits from a terrific partner in "I Know Him So Well," easily the most forgiving song in the score, but even in the recitative pieces comes off as a detriment to the proceedings around her. There is also a noticeable lack of vocal chemistry between her and Groban, which does no favors whatsoever to "You and I," which really needed to sound twice as beautiful as it did here to have the intended effect. More on "You and I" later.

The massive chorus was underutilized, and the handful of "featured solo" performers were undermiked, which really led to the other major problem of the concert - as a recording, it's a bit underwhelming. "Endgame" in particular simply droops when it should be epic. With as many performers as they had, advantage simply wasn't taken.

For the lyrics and story, there were a lot of things I was privately very happy about in this production. Probably the single best thing is that Tim Rice moved "Pity" back to Act II, where it belonged, rather than jamming up the end of a very long Act I where it competed with "Heaven" and "Anthem." Choosing to use the short "Pity" in Act I and the long version in Act II still works brilliantly. Also good to hear was the moment that had been cut from the London "Deal" - the second half of the concept album exchange between Freddie and Anatoly - restored in full, without apology. ("The Deal" actually had a marathon three choruses at the end, as opposed to its usual two.) The large majority of the lyrics were either taken from London or the concept album, with a few exceptions. The majority of the new lyrics were for "Talking Chess" and "Endgame," with a new part for Freddie in the latter (taking the place of "Though it gives me no joy...."):

"How straightforward the game
When one is free from distraction
When your only concern
Is laid out so clearly before you
Sixty-four squares
They're the reason you know you exist"

There was also one act of judicious pruning, the cutting of "Der Kleine Franz" - a thoroughly unnecessary number.

Some of the moves were less than terrific. A number of lines (from "What a Scene" and "Difficult and Dangerous Times") are given over to Florence that are mildly out of character for her to sing. "Quartet" is screwed up six ways to next Sunday - it cannot decide whether it is the London or Broadway version, and winds up an unsatisfying hodgepodge where characters sing over each other half the time and then do the round of absolute nonsense at the end. Yes, it's pretty, but you're singing strings of words, not actual meaningful lyrics. And Rice seems to have forgotten that the characters overlap in the song because Molokov doesn't shut up until the very end. It doesn't work if he's quiet half the time! Personally I'm a little disappointed that Rice didn't come up with yet another final couplet for Freddie in "Budapest is Rising" - it was always one of the little oddities of the show that you could run that thing for about five verses without repeating a line. "Talking Chess" was about doubled in length, which did give the scene a bit more punch but seemed about on the edge of overdoing its point.

Lyrically, I think Tim Rice did the wrong thing by assigning "Someone Else's Story" to Svetlana with Florence's lyrics. He rewrote the song so that Svetlana could sing it in Sydney and Off-Broadway; sure, it's not the well known lyric of the song, but it makes much more sense in character. It's not a huge variance, I don't think it would have made a lick of difference as far as the lyrics on the new CD being different from the over-rehearsed version, and I think it works a little better as a song.

But what really broke my heart, in two ways (I didn't know that was possible), was "You and I (Reprise)." First - it didn't close the show. That's so tremendously backward from everything good about Chess. It closed the show in the concept album, in Sydney and in Stockholm - and for good cause. The "Anthem" ending is an awful contrivance of Trevor Nunn's, and it should have been buried along with oh so many shoulder pads as the '80s went off into the sunset. Second - Rice did not use his original lyric for the song. For me, this was mystifying. So much of the rest of the show was happy to stick with the London lyrics; yet, the one song that really had the wind taken out of its sails in its Broadway incarnation, the "You and I" reprise, was imported. The revised lyrics don't even hold a candle to "I pray the days and nights / in their endless weary procession / soon overwhelm / my sad obsession." (Compare: "There will be days and nights / when I want you more than I want to / more than I should / oh how I want you.")

Finally, I should say a few words on the concert staging. For the most part, it was painfully banal. "Merano" passes by without a single muscle twitching when a ballet is clearly called for. "US vs. USSR" has...a bunch of people standing around and posing a little. (Which, to be honest, is all that Trevor Nunn ever did with it anyway.) "The Arbiter's Song" and "One Night in Bangkok" are the most skillfully presented numbers, and there was some art in how "The Soviet Machine" and "The Deal" were presented. But for the most part it was bland and lacking in drama. For all the people who will ever say that Chess is better as a concert, I defy you to compare this to the Stockholm production DVD. Stockholm was dripping with astonishing staging for its songs, visually engrossing with brilliant Robin Wagner sets. Even if "Ni dömer mig" ("Endgame", kinda) sucked, and it did, that was one number out of two dozen that fell on its face. This has four or five really worthy moments out of thirty-five or so. And even a well done moment, like "The Deal," doesn't hold a shadow to "Vem Kunde Ana", its Swedish counterpart. "Endgame" was particularly underwhelming and has absolutely nothing on the 1986 London production's interpretation of the scene.

In story terms, it's London. It still has the split-format match, which is weak, and it still strings together a very loose sense of plot in Act II with Freddie thrashing about wildly for motives. (He's out to get Anatoly, no he wants to help Florence, now he still loves Florence even though he was demeaning her on international TV ten minutes ago, no now he really loves chess. Zuh?) There's enough dramatic oomph to get you through, but it's muddled at best. And the conclusion just doesn't have the punch it's supposed to. I've really come around to the conclusion that Stockholm did the right thing and dropped the whole damn "Florence's father" subplot entirely - it has never really worked. My fiancee, who's seen the Broadway version in community theater, thought the lack of resolution at the end was "lame." And she wasn't really wrong. The first act doesn't drag quite as much as the original London production, only about as much as it had on Broadway, which isn't a capital crime. Still the same very much dramaturgically mixed bag that is London.

It's very good to have a mostly competent album and a well-shot DVD of the show on shelves and displayed prominently. There are very real weaknesses here, and to be honest the only thing it has on the Swedish cast recording and DVD is that the Arbiter is better. (And it's easier to understand if you only speak English. Although, really, you should probably just learn Swedish. ;)) It's not a great album for everyday listening; we already had terrific recordings of "Someone Else's Story" by Kuhn and Sjöholm, so the contribution here is on the light side. But it's absolutely necessary for its comprehensiveness, although the CD seems to be missing some recitative (the track labelled "Florence and Molokov" is really part of "Budapest is Rising" and "Florence and Molokov" is absent from the disc).

You know you're going to buy it anyway, but here's how I'd rate it in the hierarchy of Chess recordings, from top to bottom.

1988 Original Broadway Cast
2002 Stockholm cast (Chess På Svenska)
1984 Concept Album
2008 London Concert Recording
2001 Danish Complete Cast Recording
2001 Chess Karaoke CD
--- Hey kids, make your own Chess album and get a spot here ---
--- someone uploading his cat yodelling to YouTube ---
1994 Gothenburg Concert Recording

So that's about what I think of the new concert. Your mileage may vary.

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Tue Jun 16, 2009 8:46 pm
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Young Hoofer
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I agree with pretty much everything you say in your review. I was disappointed to find myself utterly bored less than halfway through the concert due to the extreme lack of passion in staging, acting and execution. Idina Menzel was indeed miscast as Florence. She and Kerry Ellis should have traded roles. Josh Groban and Adam Pascal were fine but I wish they would've tried putting some actual acting into their roles instead of just singing the songs.

Was it just me or did anyone else find the sound mixing just plain awful on both the CD and DVD? I know it's a live recording but I've heard plenty of other live recorded concerts that sound ten times better than this. Sometimes the orchestra overwhelms the singers and other times it's the exact opposite. The bass seems to be really loud, too.

I noticed a few other minor cuts to the score - "Story of Chess" has been pruned a bit, and I believe "Press Conference" is shorter too, isn't it? And I'm glad that Rice cut out most of the random musical motif for Florence and Freddie right before "1956" but he strangely left in the "So you're saying that I ought to meet him on the top of a mountain" part. Why? I thought deleting Walter's "So in the end our hero won" musical theme was a good idea, too.

Musically I thought "The Deal" was actually quite good. Probably the best on official record. I loved how the "Chorus of Champions" part of Endgame was staged. Even though it was only projections and women holding torches it worked beautifully and took my breath away.

One thing you didn't mention in your review that really grated on my nerves was the camera work during the "Chess Games." Why are the cameras focused on Pascal and Groban playing chess when there's some really beautiful dancing going on underneath them that the cameras don't seem to care about? If entire dances have been choreographed during these instrumentals isn't it obvious they should be the central focus?

I found the dancing in "The Arbiter" and "One Night in Bangkok" to be downright embarrassing. Surely something better could've been devised? And there should've been dancing during "Nobody's Side."

I, too, was disappointed in "Endgame" and the reprise of "You and I." It would've been really easy to restage the original London "Endgame" here but they didn't bother. Instead we get actors surrounded by dancers doing strange undulations. No drama at all. I also mourn the loss of the original lyrics for the "You and I" reprise. But with Idina Menzel's vocals I suppose it doesn't really matter since she makes the whole song a chore to listen to in the first place.

I've always liked the Florence's father subplot, but I digress that Sydney is the only version that found the right way to work it in. It was an important plot element but didn't end the show. That's the only way it works, I think.

Overall I would place this attempt well below all the other recordings, just above the Gothenburg concert. I would listen to the Danish recording any day over this one. The orchestrations are much more lush and full, and Emma Kershaw blows Idina out of the water.


Wed Jun 17, 2009 7:32 am
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Listening a bit more to the CD version of the concert, I'm really struck by how flat the orchestra sounds at points. It spends a lot of "Pity" sounding more like Pascal is backed up by a Casio keyboard. I kept waiting for it to pick up and really give the performance the thrust it's supposed to have right before the bridge...and it just didn't. It's really a shame.

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Wed Jun 17, 2009 1:51 pm
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Tony Winner
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All I'm going to say is the album was produced by Nigel Wright. Coffin, meet nail.


Wed Jun 17, 2009 4:26 pm
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Quote:
It's very good to have a mostly competent album and a well-shot DVD of the show on shelves and displayed prominently.


I came here to say this. For all its faults, this is going to put chess into the ears of more people, and that's never a bad thing. (unless it's the 1994 Concert, apparently. lol!)

That is all. :)

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Wed Jun 17, 2009 7:42 pm
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Blah. Critics, critics, and critics still. Speaking as one who only has limited knowledge of Chess (i.e. never seen a production), I thought it was well-played and well-performed (Josh Groban certainly did better than I was led to believe), and the apparently "official" libretto is wonderful indeed, and will hopefully be enough to launch the show into more theatres abroad.

The three points I shall make though:

- I wish they had kept the extended version of "The Arbiter"
- Dancing in that and "Bangkok" was, I shall admit, a tad irritating
- Nothing wrong with wanting to end it with a reprise of "Anthem", but a stronger build up to it would have been nice, rather than that whole bit about Florence's father.

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Wed Jun 17, 2009 7:54 pm
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Just finished watching it!
As much as I love Idina, I have to agree, she was horribly miscast. I think she tried to the best of her ability, but fell flat. At some points, I did think she sounded good, but completely wrong for the part. Honestly, when I first read she and Kerry were going to do Chess, I thought Kerry was playing Florence and Idina was playing Svetlana and I still think it should have been casted that way.
As for Adam, I thought he did a good job! I thought his 'Pity the Child' was awesome. Overall, he probably the best out of all of them.
With Josh, I agree, he is not an actor. To be honest, though, I've seen alot worse. Vocally, I loved Josh, his 'Anthem' was wonderful! Acting, is another story... most of the time, he's just sort of there..
Kerry, well.. it's Kerry! She sounded wonderful!

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Wed Jun 17, 2009 10:41 pm
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Anno_Domini wrote:
Blah. Critics, critics, and critics still. Speaking as one who only has limited knowledge of Chess (i.e. never seen a production), I thought it was well-played and well-performed (Josh Groban certainly did better than I was led to believe), and the apparently "official" libretto is wonderful indeed, and will hopefully be enough to launch the show into more theatres abroad.

The three points I shall make though:

- I wish they had kept the extended version of "The Arbiter"
- Dancing in that and "Bangkok" was, I shall admit, a tad irritating
- Nothing wrong with wanting to end it with a reprise of "Anthem", but a stronger build up to it would have been nice, rather than that whole bit about Florence's father.

Hey, if you enjoyed the concert, more power to you. I thought that there was a good amount to like, and I tried to convey this along with exactly what, where and why I felt the performance was lacking. There has never been a perfect cast, plot, or recording of this show - it's something that, as a fan, you manage to live with. I'm not going to pretend that I'm happy with every aspect of the concert just because I'm glad there's a major recording out there.

As for the libretto: it is 95% the same as what opened in London twenty-three years ago. And London was not at any point considered "final" by the people working on it - they knew they were going to have to rework it for Broadway. The problem was that there were vast creative differences, which Trevor Nunn "worked out" by strong-arming his way into creative control, which turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Tim Rice actually came back after that with a superb rewrite of his own in Sydney, Australia - it had some problems, but on the whole it remains my favorite variation on the script. And, despite some faults in Act II (they all have faults in Act II, that's the whole problem), I think the Swedish version had an awful lot to offer. My disappointment is mostly that Rice ignored most of what was done in those productions and focused squarely on the original London libretto. As someone who has studied the variations of the show and its creative twists and turns in a pretty extensive depth, I think I'm justified in conveying how & why I don't think this is the best of all possible outcomes.

But, to be honest, if they brought this version as a real production to Broadway, I'd be on my way up to New York to see it multiple times. As a concert, it'd depend somewhat on the casting.

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Thu Jun 18, 2009 3:20 am
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Menzel wasm iscast.. vocally she wasnt aFlorence and she seemed forced in her emotions and movement.

Kerry Ellis was a weak Svetlana.

I disliked the changes in act 2.. the introduction of a new chess opponent who did nothing...I much prefer when Freddy and Anatoly are the players in the final chess match.
They did solve the problem of freddy in act II but only created new problems.

I thought there wasnt enough dialouge or narration in between scenes/songs.

Clarke Peters was wastesd. such a good actor and he got shit on with the cutting of most of walters material or reassigning some of it to Florence for no reason.
oh and whats with the stupid cheerleaders????????

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Thu Jun 18, 2009 5:54 am
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Young Hoofer
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I, too, enjoyed Clarke Peters. I wish his role hadn't been changed to that of more of a narrator. It makes the character of the Arbiter unnecessary again, much like the Broadway version...

I found the cheerleaders in "Merchandisers" obnoxious too. I don't think they made it clear to the audience exactly what that song is about and the lyrics when sung by a full choir are rather unintelligible.

Some bridging narration or dialogue was necessary to move the story along at some points and it just wasn't there. "Mountain Duet" had no set up, and neither did "I Know Him So Well." They both need it.


Thu Jun 18, 2009 6:26 am
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when I played Florence our director worked out a script combining broadway and australia. used the arbiter as the narrator, brough sdvetlana in earlier.. in act one and bridged alot of the problems i loved what was done witho ur production.

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Thu Jun 18, 2009 6:34 am
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ohh one more thing that really bothered me. setting it in 1979 and 1980. the whole thing is a product of the f'ked up Reagan era..setting it at the end of Carter's term weakens the whole piece.

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