Chess: A Musical I’ve Been Waiting For Decades to See Their Next Move
In June of last year, Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar), the incredible lyric and book writer of many of my favorite musicals, announced that after a recent successful table reading, the long-awaited revival of the musical, Chess, with music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus (Mamma Mia!) would return to the Broadway stage for the first time since 1988. Way back in 1984, the musical began the game with the first move being a very successful concept album, and because of that success (the album was a Top 10 hit in the UK, West Germany and South Africa, reached #47 on the US Billboard 200, #39 in France, #35 in Australia, and was #1 on the Swedish charts for seven weeks, most likely due to ABBA’s Swedish heritage), made the strategic and daring move in 1986 to the West End. There it continued its winning streak by scoring numerous awards and three Olivier nominations including Best New Musical and nods for two of its leads. The wildly embraced musical game starred Eileen Page, Tommy Körberg, and Murray Head, and ran for over two years before, naturally making its way to New York City and the Broadway stage.
As it made its way over here, the show was reconfigured quite dramatically. The creative team reimagined the show from beginning to end, creating a very altered musical intended specifically for its American audience, with considerable differences in both plot and music. Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard, Cats) brought in playwright Richard Nelson (James Joyce’s The Dead) in an attempt to make a more straightforward “book show” for Broadway audiences. Nunn decided also, to not bring over Paige for the role of Florence but asked Nelson to recreate the character as an American and Judy Kuhn (Fun Home) was subsequently cast (to great acclaim). After such success in England, Chess did not get the rave reviews it was hoping for or had received in London, with some saying that the new book took away a great deal of its cohesion. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote: “the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand” and not surprisingly, the musical only ran for two months before the producers were check mated and closed the show.
With great fanfare and theatre geek excitement (mine), it was announced in November of 2017 that the show would have a pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center from February 14 to 18, 2018 by the Broadway Center Stage at the Eisenhower Theater, and I for one, knew I had to be there to see this show. It was one of those musicals from the 80’s that in my little apartment on Vaughn Road in Toronto, I would continuously listen to the cassette tape of the concept album over and over again, dreaming of the day that I would get to see this show live on stage. It never did make its way to Toronto, at least when I was around to see it, nor did I ever get the chance in London or New York. So with director Michael Mayer (West End’s Funny Girl, Broadway’s The Terms of My Surrender, 2ST’s Whorl Inside a Loop) taking control of the chess pieces with a restructured storyline and book from writer, Danny Strong (Empire,The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) in front of a scaffolding supporting conductor, Chris Fenwick and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, I would finally get my chance.
Little did I know back than in my early twenties, that this current revival would star two of my most favorite male Broadway singers, face to face, battling it out, not just for the championship of this particular musical chess match, but also for my Broadway heart. Raul Esparza (Broadway’s Leap of Faith, The Homecoming), as obnoxious American chess champion, Freddie Trumper (yes, this is truly the character’s original name) has always reigned as my number one, seeing him in numerous plays and almost seeing him in Sondheim’s Company. Sadly he was out the night that I, accompanied by eleven of my good friends celebrating my birthday, showed up for Bobby’s birthday and to see Raul Esparza sing the incredible final number, ‘Being Alive’ (click here to check it out). Boy, did my heart sink when I saw the note in the Playbill that he was out for the week, replaced by a perfectly fine actor, but no Raul in my eyes. But Esparza did make it up to me, surprisingly, when he stepped in at the last minute, filling in for a worn-out Patti LuPone, at a benefit, hilariously titled Leading Ladies Singing Sondheim (or something like that). He arrived unannounced in the last few moments of the night and sang the song that I had sadly missed out on months before. And he sang it as spectacularly as I had imagined he would.
Sneaking up behind Esparza on my list of favorite male Broadway singers and performers, most definitely, is the incredibly gifted and gorgeous Ramin Karimloo (Tokyo/Osaka’s Prince of Broadway), who destroyed me in the Les Miserables revival and astounded me further in the overall lesser show, Anastasia on Broadway. But here in D.C. playing the heartthrob Russian chess master, Anatoly Sergievsky, one had to ask the question: “What could be better than this?” These two magnificent singers, battling it out, over an international chess tournament, singing their hearts out to one of my favorite scores. Who would win the highly important and internationally relevant chess game? But more importantly, who would win the battle to be my favorite Broadway leading man? (sorry Bryce Pinkham, you are wonderful and in my top ten, but not my top two…)
The third battle of the night, the one that takes place on stage and not in my head, is for the heart of the Hungarian emigre, Florence Vassy, playing Freddie’s chess second (which I’m not entirely sure what that position means) and the love interest of both Freddie and Anatoly. Florence is played and sung most miraculously by Tony Award-winner Karen Olivo (West Side Story, In the Heights) knocking out each and every one of her songs, especially “Heaven Help My Heart”. Her performance is heart wrenching. But the biggest moment of the night, at least when it comes to the ladies, is the duet, “I Know Him So Well”, sung with the late arrival, Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana, played beautifully by Tony Award-winner Ruthie Ann Miles (Broadway’s The King and I, Sunday in the Park with George). These two magically brought me back in time to that great old apartment in Toronto, when I used to listen to Paige and Barbara Dickson sing their version, a song which held the #1 spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks. Now, sitting there at the Kennedy Center last weekend, I couldn’t have been more satisfied.
Residing magnificently in the expanded role of the Arbiter and Narrator of this complex reordering of the story, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) guides us deliciously through the tale. He provides a perfect positioning, informing and delivering us from Murano, Italy to the second act city of Bangkok, with stand-outs numbers like the very well-known “One Night in Bangkok“, “US vs USSR” and “The Story of Chess” rising above the rest, with the help of the semi-circle of the ensemble. He beautifully trots out Svetlana in the second act, courtesy of the KGB. They have hope that her presence will mess with the mind of Anatoly during the important second chess match of the night, a match that carries more weight then just the championship title.
Semi-staged in a similar style to New York City Center’s Encores! series, director Mayer, on a set designed by David Rockwell (Roundabout’s She Loves Me), with costumes by Clint Ramos (Broadway’s Once On This Island), lighting by Kevin Adams (Broadway’s Next to Normal), and sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), the production almost reinstates itself to the legendary status it has always been inches away from. Strong’s new script takes us back to many of the original elements of the London production, most structurally significant is the story’s returning of the first act to Murano, Italy, and the second act to Bangkok. He also reinstated Florence as a Hungarian with a lost and imprisoned father, and reimagined the TV executive, Walter as a devious CIA agent, strongly portrayed by Sean Allan Krill (Broadway’s Honeymoon in Vegas). Walter doesn’t care much for chess, but he does care about politics and the new world order, so he colludes with the KGB agent, Molokov, dynamically played by Bradley Dean (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) to interfere with the matches in order to save the nuclear arms reduction talks that are at risk of imploding. Seems farfetched? It sort of is, but the metaphoric balance of global power and pride always does seem connected to something other than actual policy, be it the Olympics or Chess. The complicated tale wraps this American Vs the USSR chess game tightly around the Cold War with imagery of Ronald Reagan and inspired by the celebrated 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match. So much is at stake, from Love to War, and we all can’t take our eyes and ears off the players.
It is thrillingly sung throughout, especially Karimloo, blowing us all away with every note sung, nailing the difficult task of making us care about a man who lives his emotionally life internally, never daring to let anyone inside his heart, nor see his loneliness. That is until Olivo’s Florence comes along, and finds her way. It’s not surprising, her voice could melt any obstructions away. Esparza, battling a bad cold but soldiering on (this was announced just before the curtain went up – sort of a personal déjà-vu moment), tries his best to rock out dramatically, especially during the magnificent eleven o’clock number, “Pity the Child”. Beginning that song softly, showing us the pain that lives inside this man, his voice transported me, and when the song asked for power and fervor, a level this glorious rock tenor usually has in abundance, Esparza struggled. There was a moment at the end that felt like a strong solid note was to be held as it powerfully flew across the theatre, but the air and the sound wasn’t there to soar. But what he lacked in rock and roll power and edge, the man certainly maked up for it with swagger. Even on this one night, in full battle with a cold, his rendition and performance was heartbreaking, captivating, and somehow, unparalleled, even with the roughness and strain of a compromised voice. He brought a layered sensitivity to the difficult and arrogant Trumper, and I’m thankful that I was present to see it. With that in mind, all I can say is Hallelujah (click here to hear Esparza sing Hallelujah)
So who won the battle of favorite Broadway leading man? I’m calling it a draw, as I hope to see both these performers once again play this game of Chess when this wonderful show makes it way back to the Broadway stage. Only with Esparza back in full vocal force, will I be able to make that call. And I’m guessing it will be a tie, with both of these magnificent performers coming out as winners, just like this show. Don’t make me wait another 30 years to see it again, though. That was far too long. It’s your move now, Mr. Producers.
Out of Town