Reviews for the Broadway Production
A word is needed before you read these reviews. First, if you think this is the
worst set of reviews imaginable, you're wrong. A week afterwards, these same critics
tore the musical Carrie apart even more ruthlessly. Second, at the time,
Frank Rich of The New York Times actually did have the power to close a show--
power given him by the paper's readers who let him dictate what shows they would see.
He was called "the butcher of Broadway" and many accused him of refusing to praise
any show but one by Stephen Sondheim.
But the reality is, most of the critics hated the show. Several recanted the
next week, wondering why they wasted their invective on Chess when Carrie
was to come, and most of the others recanted to the author of this website personally
on the night of the Tony Awards, just a few months later. When asked why, they all
said they'd seen the show again and had found it much better on a second viewing.
Did they communicate this to their readers or viewers? No.
After you read Mr. Rich's review, remember the incredible power he had and the fact
that Chess stayed open for three months--thanks to the hardy souls who made
up their own minds and passed the word along.
In Trevor Nunn's Musical 'Chess,' East Faces West Across a Board
Anyone who associates the game of chess with quiet contemplation is in for a jolt
at Chess, the new musical that does for board games what another Trevor Nunn
production, Starlight Express did for the roller derby. For over three hours, the
characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music. The show is a
suite of temper tantrums, all amplified to a piercing pitch that would not be
out of place in a musical about one of chess's somewhat noisier fellow sports,
like stock-car racing.
Many of the fights pertain to the evening's ostensible story, an extended struggle between a Soviet chess master, Anatoly (David Carroll), and an American challenger, Freddie (Philip Casnoff), for the world championship. Freddie is an ugly American, John McEnroe-style, who will throw a drink in a reporter's face or upend a chess board if he doesn't get his way. When Freddie is tired of fighting with Anatoly, he brawls with his chess second and former lover, Florence (Judy Kuhn), or with his C.I.A. keeper (Dennis Parlato), who then argues with his K.G.B. counterpart (Harry Goz). As the action moves from Bangkok to Budapest at the start of Act II, even the neutral arbiter of the chess match (Paul Harman) jumps fully into the fray. In an unintelligible but ineffably loony solo, the official starts barking indiscriminately at anyone who will listen, including one poor lady who wishes only to collect her luggage at the airport.
If contentiousness were drama, Chess would be at least as riveting as The Bickersons. That the evening had the theatrical consistency of quicksand--and the drab color scheme to match--can be attributed to the fact that the show's book, by the American playwright Richard Nelson, and lyrics, by Andrew Lloyd Webber's former and cleverest collaborator, Tim Rice, are about nothing except the authors' own pompous pretensions. Chess tells us over and over again that all the world is a chess game, that all the men and women are merely pawns, that everything from global conflicts to love to détente is subject to the same strategies and movies. "They see chess as a war/playing with pawns just like Poland," sings Freddie of the Russians. So what else is new?
The metaphor could grab an audience only if Mr. Nelson and Mr. Rice dramatized it in specific, compelling terms. They haven't. Their tale of international intrigue, with its nefarious spies and headline-making defection, is incoherent and jerry-built, John le Carré boiled down to a sketchy paragraph. Even more ridiculous (and windier) is the parallel love story--which sends Florence, a Hungarian refugee to the United States, ricocheting arbitrarily between the American and the Soviet players as if she had no self respect or political convictions. By the time the love triangle turns into a rectangle, with the sudden addition of Anatoly's estranged but impossibly noble wife (Marcia Mitzman), Chess starts to resemble Chinese checkers.
Rather than condescend to throwing the audience a bone of genuinely romantic or melodramatic entertainment--or even providing a tense chess game--the authors pass the time pontificating about politics in sweeping generalities reminiscent of Mr. Rice's Evita. The show's mindless point of view, carefully fashioned to avoid offending any paying customer and therefore bereft of bite, has it that the Soviet and American governments are equally duplicitous in pursuit of nearly identical goals, no matter what the changes in Administrations or the fate of glasnost.
The sole time Chess takes a strong stand on anything, and tries (without success) to muster a sense of humor, is in an early song mocking companies that merchandise and exploit chess with cheesy products. But the musical's moral stance proves hypocritical minutes later, when, for no reasons other than to plug a catchy song ("One Night in Bangkok") and give the production its one iota of dancing, Chess takes us on an exploitative tour of Bangkok's sleazy flesh palaces. As choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, the number looks like a hermaphroditic burlesque of the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" ballet in The King and I.
The studied ideological neutrality of the script is matched by the music--composed in a sometimes tuneful but always characterless smorgasbord of mainstream pop styles by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the Swedish rock combine Abba. Robin Wagner's set, fussily lighted by David Hersey, has even less personality. It is colorless--a presumably Kafkaesque configuration of oppressive, mobile towers in cinder-block gray. Though Mr. Wagner has given the Broadway Chess a different design than he did in London, where the production was initiated by Michael Bennett and completed by Mr. Nunn, one still finds the ghost of the Bennett-Wagner partnership on Dreamgirls in the towers at the Imperial.
For all the redesigning, rewriting and recasting that have followed the West End premiere, it's amazing how little success Mr. Nunn has had in levitating Chess. He doesn't seem to be injecting passion into a play so much as adding a branch store to an international conglomerate. His main achievements seem to have been to add running time, to remove the glitzy video and hydraulic special effects and to tack on a prologue, replete with smoke and tattered flags, that makes the 1956 Hungarian revolution look like the Parisian barricades sequences of his far superior Misérables. His work is so mechanical here that he can't even whip up feeling in a shamelessly sentimental reunion between the heroine and a man she believes is her long-lost father--in spite of putting the man in a wheelchair and having him lead his daughter in a Hungarian lullaby.
The casting is also quixotic, with either broad or inept performances in every supporting role. The leads, all powerful singers, are much better. The most impressive acting comes from Mr. Carroll's Anatoly, who brings real fire to a generic patriotic anthem that ends Act I and who also evinces a sweetness reminiscent of the Russian created by Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Mr. Casnoff does everything humanly possible to bring shading to the spoiled, one note American, even while shrieking a last-minute aria in which Freddie demands that we forgive his obnoxious arrogance because he comes from a broken home.
The largest role by far belongs to Ms. Kuhn. This talented but misused young actress spends almost the entire second act belting out unmotivated and often self-contradictory songs of love, defiance and moral indignation, sobbing unconvincingly through most of them. While Ms. Kuhn may acquire the magic necessary to carry a big musical some day, she needs more experience--and more help from everyone, from the authors to the costume designer--to do so. But her efforts are not entirely in vain. Watching Ms. Kuhn's brave struggles against impossible odds, we do at last find some substance to the musical's metaphorical equation of chess and war. War is hell, and, for this trapped performer and the audience, Chess sometimes comes remarkably close.
--Frank Rich, The New York Times, 29 April 1988
Chess runs just over three hours and at the end of it, I felt rooked. For here is another massively-produced trifle with a kings ransom in computerized scenery and not a pawn's worth of passion. The plot concerns a world championship chess match between a quiet Russian and a brash American and their rivalry over the same woman. And the rivalry is so poorly drawn that you don't care who wins the match or who gets the girl. It's not a true love triangle, since the American is so self-centered, he doesn't really care about the girl and when the Russian defects, the Soviets try to lure him back to Mother Russia with comic book ploys that include an old man posing as a long-lost father. The story is told with deafening music, revolving towers and turntables, and it is interminable. The music is by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, and despite the clamor, they have a couple of nice melodies. The lyrics were perpetrated by Tim Rice, who in Evita committed the lyric, "Just adore me/Christian Dior me." Here, he's up to his usual standard. Somebody sings "The chess match is of interest/To the East and the West." The leads are all splendid singers, Judy Kuhn, David Carroll as the Russian, and Philip Casnoff as the Bobby Fischer-type American. But as a romantic drama and a metaphor for East-West relations, the show has all the tension of a lox. The very busy direction is by Trevor Nunn. So Chess left me feeling rooked and I got in for free. Top ticket is 50 bucks. Your move.
--Stewart Klein, Fox 5 The Ten O'Clock News, 28 April 1988
When the curtain went up, I thought I was watching a parody of Les Miz. The stage rotates, there's gunfire, barricades, a banner. But the parody soon becomes a bad joke. The stage turns and huge towers that look like Stonehenge on wheels move after every number. Not for any reason, just because they can. Songs are sung that have nothing to do with the story around them or the people who sing them. It's loud, it's laughably pretentious, this is the Moose Murders [a notorious Broadway flop] of musicals. It's an international chess championship in Bangkok, us versus the USSR. The American is so arrogant, so snide--his first speech is an ethnic epithet--he makes Hitler look like Mother Theresa. Not someone you want to root for, let alone spend three hours with. The second, a child of the Hungarian uprising--that's the Les Miz parody at the show's top--falls in love with the Russian champion. These are two fine performers, by the way--Judy Kuhn and David Carroll--but when Carroll defects he sings not about freedom, or Judy, but about how much he loves Russia. Why? The first act is that incoherent. The second act, the Russians try to regain their defector, isn't better, but at least the story's coherent.
This is "One Night in Bangkok." The first act takes place in Bangkok but there were only two Asian actors in the entire cast. I find that unacceptable in New York in 1988. The tune's a good one, though, already a hit. Chess was a record album that became a musical. Well, it was a record album. It's never become a musical. Chess is three hours long, that is a long night and at $50 a ticket and it's a rook.
--Joel Siegel, WABC-TV Eyewitness News, 28 April 1988
For the first hour, Chess is more like Trivial Pursuit. In this $6 million, 3-hour musical, nothing important happens until the Soviet's top chess player falls in love with the enemy or rather the assistant to the enemy, a pretty and smart second to the American champion. The place is Bangkok, at stake the world chess championship. The match between Freddie and Anatoly is but a metaphor for the intrigue behind the scenes. Anatoly defects to the West and soon he and his new lover are but pawns in an old game between the CIA and the KGB over Soviet American summit politics. The score by Tim Rice and the men of the pop group ABBA is eclectic and electric; a mix of conventional tunes plus rock and pop including the hit song "One Night in Bangkok."
I loved this song on the radio but not on stage and like many songs here, it's a musical detour to the story. It was an album before it was a show and some numbers should have been checkmated long ago. The score is uneven in quality and unfocused in direction, but skillfully produced. The good news is that there are four wonderful songs and three spectacular talents to sing them. Philip Casnoff, the American bad boy of chess, David Carroll, the Soviet defector, and Judy Kuhn, the woman in both their lives. In this chess game, Judy Kuhn is the winner, a dazzling presence, who deserves the Tony Award for this performance. In the end, Chess is as frustrating as the game that inspired it. A lot of very gifted people have brought chess here from England including Cats director Trevor Nunn. Maybe everyone involved in Chess should have settled for something less ambitious. Like checkers.
--Pat Collins, WWOR-TV, 28 April 1988
Chess is a gambit that works. Trevor Nunn's new staging of this musical devised by Tim Rice is indeed a winner. Tim Rice lyrics are set to the music of the Swedish composers who make up the group ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Their Euro-pop style won't win any awards for innovation, but it makes for solid, serviceable and occasionally show-stopping tunes. Richard Nelson's intriguing plot pits a Russian against the brat of American chess. Arrogant and rude, he's played with swashbuckling style by Philip Casnoff and he sings the musical's reigning hit:
David Carroll is stalwart, full-voiced and impressive as the Russian who may defect:
And the sensational Judy Kuhn completes the triangle as the love interest. The style here is so aggressive, there's a forced emotionalism that's rescued from being almost too overbearing by the genuine talent of this trio. Everybody bears down and belts out as though trying to flatten you up against the back of your seat. And it's on the long side. But I think Chess is an exhilarating new game in town.
--Pia Lindstrom, WNBC-TV, 28 April 1988
I think how much you enjoy Chess will depend on how much you enjoy looking at a set for three hours. Not just a set, though. This one, designed by Robin Wagner, is an amazement--it twists and twirls and swirls and turns itself into whatever it wants to be from an airplane hangar to a hotel room to a city in revolution. The set is hugely fascinating and first rate. What's in front of it is the musical called Chess and sadly, that is commonplace and second-rate. To begin with, there is the music, but just barely; most of it of the humdrum toy xylophone sort, some of it okay but no better, and then there is the play itself--worse.
A world chess championship between a Soviet and an American, a romance between the Soviet and the American's assistant, and oh, lots more I'll spare you about Asian night life and abused brothers and lost fathers and memories of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. It's all gloomy and pretentious and shamefully "B" movie, featuring dialogue by Richard Nelson which makes The Guiding Light seem like Sophocles; featuring also characters who barely exist, one of whom, the American chess player, is utterly and pointlessly hateful. Late in the evening, you'll hate him even more when he tells you what an awful childhood he had and asks for your pity. It is the lowest point in an evening of low points. Fortunately you couldn't really hear how Godawful are the lyrics of Tim Rice. Well, there is that dazzling Robin Wagner set and David Hersey's lighting and Theoni Aldredge's super costumes and the very gallant and abused actors. Director Trevor Nunn directed everyone to howl and bellow without letup, hoping I guess you wouldn't notice how bad things are. Things are really bad.
--Dennis Cunningham, WCBS-TV, 28 April 1988
Checkmate in Two Acts: Broadway's monster--no, monstrous--new musical
With Chess, the first crack in Broadway's Chinese wall of blockbuster overseas musicals appears--and it is a big, festering fissure. Say what you will about Cats, Les Misérables, Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera--all objects of controversy, all big hits--each of them delivers something, some thing, to its audience. With the $6 million Chess, the entire apparatus of these high-tech, huge-concept, giant-scale shows breaks loose from its moorings, like King Kong, and flails about, stomping and crushing everything in its way. And what's in its way is the show, the theatrical experience that finally depends on human beings and human scale and talent and sheer artistic common sense.
The lack of common sense in Chess is appalling. What you have instead is hubris, the arrogance--or the desperation--that treats the audience as a collection of targets to be bowled over. As he did with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, lyricist Tim Rice first wrote Chess as a discopera, teaming up with composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (of the Swedish pop group ABBA) to create a double album that has sold 2 million copies worldwide.
Softened up by the hit record, London theatre audience[s] accepted a production that was a messy mutation of the work of two directors, Michael Bennett, who left because of illness, and Trevor Nunn, who had time only for a patchwork job. But Nunn and the producers, led by America's mighty Shubert Organization, knew that the London show wouldn't wash in New York. The ensuing plastic surgery included a new book by Richard Nelson, a new American cast without London star Elaine Paige and a new set design by Robin Wagner. Out went Wagner's giant chessboard with its life-size pieces; the 128 video screens; the tilting, rotating stage; the Tyrolean village. In went towers that shift and slide to mark the show's many locales from a Budapest hotel to the cathouses and massage parlors of Bangkok.
The result of all this Frankensteinian fiddling is--a monster. Chess purports to be a "serious" musical, the story of a globe-girdling world-championship chess match between challenger Freddie, a wise-guy American, and champ Anatoly, a nice-guy Russian, during which Freddie's aide, Florence, a girl of Hungarian extraction, leaves him for Anatoly, who then proceeds to defect, even though he has a wife in the U.S.S.R. (Deep breath.) Meanwhile, a Soviet-American summit meeting is going on, and the two chess delegations, led by CIA and KGB types, are playing their own game, which involves the sudden appearances of Anatoly's wife and Florence's father, who had disappeared during the Hungarian revolution in 1956. (Deeper breath.)
Heartless games: This, you say, is a musical? No, this is a serious musical, which
means for example that the opening scene occurs in 1956 Hungary, where amid thunderous
machine-gun fire and explosions the father explains (musically) to his four-year-old
daughter the history of chess. Why? you cry. Because chess is the metaphor for the
heartless games that people and nations and lovers and husbands and wives and superstars
play with one another, that's why. The Marx Brothers might have made this work as a
satire--The Big Rook --and that would have been serious. But Chess
assaults the audience with a relentless barrage of scenes and numbers that are
muscle-bound with self-importance. Trevor Nunn, who staged three of the supermusicals
on Broadway, doesn't have the help of T.S. Eliot (Cats), Victor Hugo (Les
Misérables) or Amtrak Starlight Express. Time and again he over-directs,
cramming the scenes with business (Freddie does one song while doing a violent series
of pushups and sit-ups).
As for the music, it is another example of that increasingly prevalent international style that bleaches out all cultural idiosyncrasy in favor of a UNESCO-pop neutrality. With the overmiking of the sound, this becomes the world's most assaultive neutrality. And those twirling gray towers muscle aside and loom over the performers like some abstract theatrical Brasília. The actors themselves are splendid and gallant, especially the three young leads: Philip Casnoff does his best to make the obnoxious Freddie into a Pal Joey of the chessboard. David Carroll gives Anatoly's defections and undefections a full-voiced sincerity. And Judy Kuhn is a singing Holly Hunter whose solo ballad "Heaven Help My Heart," brings a momentary grace and sweetness to the overagitated stage. Despite its $4 million advance sale, Chess may demonstrate whether the Broadway audience is mesmerized by sheer gigantism or whether it demands a decent measure of heart and soul for its 50 bucks.
--Jack Kroll, Newsweek, 9 May 1988
One thing is certain. Tim Rice's Chess is a whole new game in New York from what it was in London. It is not so much two different productions of the same show as two different shows. Almost two different types of show.
The Chess which opened at the Imperial Theatre last night could be called a political love story--honest, simplistic, sentimental, but, despite all its frantic efforts to the contrary, a little banal. The original Chess with its high-tech video screens and hydraulic stage, even its complex opening dance tableau, was a more ambitious attempt to symbolize life and politics as a chess game, following the example of Ninette de Valois' celebrated ballet "Checkmate."
As can happen with ambition, that earlier, more cerebral version was markedly less successful than this more modestly scaled Broadway offshoot. But success can be comparative, and whether this frantic, over-amplified musical will make up in human feeling what it has abandoned in sheer technological pizzazz, will be for Broadway audiences to decide. The London show, like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express triumphantly survived very mixed notices and varied words of mouths. Whether this humanized Chess can withstand the same fate--if such befalls it--may be less certain.
The music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus--part of the Swedish pop group Abba--proves noisy but not especially appealing or original. It could be characterized as Andrew Lloyd Webber without the tunes, which is not the best of news.
In fairness, there are some numbers that gingerly approach melody, and a couple of them, "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well," have already become well known. Yet the final impression of the scores is of pretentious eclecticism caught uneasily between rock and the hard place of old-time theatre music.
Yet the real danger to Chess comes ironically from its real merit--which is Tim Rice's original idea to produce a Broadway musical somewhat along the lines of Evita, with a theme and story at least as substantial as an opera.
The attempt is made to show real people in serious situations, and even, in a crude fashion, to draw some kind of sloganeering political message from it all. However, the fact that it clearly is more seriously inclined than even, say, The King and I, invites audiences and critics to apply more stringent standards of taste and credibility to something that is, after all, still a pop entertainment and not a work of art.
For this New York staging, Rice has brought in playwright Richard Nelson to provide a new book, restricting his own literary efforts to the complex and often cleverly limber lyrics.
Nelson, a glitteringly literate American playwright probably more popular in Britain than at home, has developed more fully the story of chess, love and power politics.
The hero and anti-hero--the two chess players locked in the spotlight of a world championship--are the unbelievably noble Russian, Anatoly (David Carroll), and the unbelievably ugly American, Freddie (Philip Casnoff), a brat who would make John McEnroe seem like Emily Post.
Freddie's chess second is Florence (Judy Kuhn), a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian revolution (which we now witness, in passing, in a new noisy, smoky prologue), who was once Freddie's lover. Now she falls in love with Anatoly, who is inspired to defect and seek political asylum.
In an unlikely second act twist, the action moves from Bangkok to Budapest, where the chess championship continues--now with new American Anatoly pitted against old American Freddie. The very possibility, even in these days of glasnost, of a Soviet defector being permitted almost instantly to play chess in an Eastern bloc country sounds tenuous.
However--once there, the Russians put pressure on Anatoly to return to the Soviet Union. And, for reasons never quite clear to me, the KGB is helped in this effort by the CIA, who apparently wish to rack up brownie points with their Soviet counterparts.
This tortured love quartet--the Russians send Anatoly's wife, Svetlana (Marcia Mitzman), to Budapest to increase the pressure--are surprisingly convincing, and Anatoly's doubts, fears and difficulties on his defection are precisely those encountered by every defector I have ever known.
Trevor Nunn's staging is dazzling in its speed, and sense of a traveling stage pitted with acid-etched vignettes of action. For the chameleon setting Robin Wagner has devised revolving towers of the type he used in Dreamgirls, and Nunn uses them magnificently. The stage becomes a kaleidoscope of drama and swirling movement, but the scenery is not the only outstanding performer of the evening.
Casnoff, bitter and rancid as the Yankee brat, and Carroll, truculent and skeptical as the
hero of the Soviet Union, are both remarkably fine, as are the touching Miss Mitzman
and veteran Harry Goz as the sinuously bluff KGB factotum.
But best of all is the terrific, full-voiced, intensely focused Miss Kuhn--remembered
from her Cosette in Les Miserables--as the Hungarian sparrow crushed by the
fall of an iron curtain. She tears at the heart, rather more effectively, indeed,
than does the musical itself. But both are still definitely worth seeing, even if
for the latter you need earplugs.
--Clive Barnes, New York Post, 29 April 1988
For Broadway, 'Chess' Is a Love Match
Nothing is black and white about Chess, except, of course, the gameboard.
London's latest megamusical, which opened at the Imperial last night after a
notoriously rocky road, is big and grim but not unfeeling, loud and bloated but
not unprovocative, slick and obvious but seldom dull. Played around an international
chess match between Them and Us, the show finds what thrills it can--to quote
"One Night in Bangkok"--between despair and ecstasy.
The surprise is that Chess, once a high-tech political musical with a love and
chess subplot, has been drastically rewritten for American as a love story with a
political and chess subplot.
What's more, the focus is neither the serious
Russian player nor the bratty American play but, instead, the Hungarian born American
woman who works for the brat but falls for his opponent. Thanks to Trevor Nunn's
exceptionally attractive young cast--David Carroll, Philip Casnoff and the extraordinarily
unassuming Judy Kuhn--these people are likable even when their characters are
A major problem, oddly enough, is that the show suffers from glasnost. Conceived by Rice
for a 1984 album, staged in London in 1986, Chess is a cold-war musical which--
despite a mention or two about the thaw and the changing of "dangerous" times to
"encouraging" ones--has spooks and goons skulking around corners and the dated feel
of unrelieved oppression.
The new book, written by Richard Nelson, also is loaded with implausibilities: Americans
and Russians are conveniently free to hang out alone together whenever there's a need
for a song; all the central Russian characters speak English; and, most improbably of
all, the Russian is allowed to compete behind the Iron Curtain soon after he defects.
Lest anyone dwell on such details, Nunn, the master behind such monsters as
Starlight Express and such wonders as Nicholas Nickleby keeps gigantic
gray-bronze column walls zipping, sliding, dancing around the stage and forming
configurations to suggest Hilton Hotel rooms, airports, cafes and even the 1956
The uprising is prologue, where, in the midst of enough bullets and smoke to upstage
Les Mis, a father tenderly gives child Florence the debatable lesson that
chess is a metaphor for life and politics. ("Each game of chess means there's one
less variation left to be played.") They are separated. We meet her as an adult in
Bangkok, where she is second to Freddie, an ex-love and a hothead. While trying to
mediate a fight between Freddie and Anatoly, she ends up in Anatoly's arms. He
defects. They go to Budapest to finish the match--but, surprise, the Russians have
Thus the little people are dwarfed by the massive forces--intentionally
by the massive walls, and, probably unintentionally, by the overwrought production
that exaggerates emotion into knee-jerk sentimentality and inflates the modest plot
into a grandiose soaper.
Little wonder, however, that Rice turned to the music by Benny Andersson and Björn
Ulvaeus when he split with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The composers, formerly of the Swedish
pop group ABBA, can write music that sounds like Jesus Christ Superstar, Rice
and Lloyd Webber's first and most ingratiating hit.
Rice's lyrics are unpredictable and the Chess score is an uneven but versatile
mix of pop, neo-Slav and schlock, with big-book walking bass for the Russians. The
composers have a nice way with musical irony, often putting an anguished melody over
a tinkly music-box accompaniment. Too often, they build tension with nondescript
melodies that meander around a tonal center until a big harmonic payoff; and the
finale of both acts, "Anthem," is a pretentious "Climb Every Mountain" for
But there are the pop singles "Bangkok," which is evil fun, and "I Know Him So Well,"
which is pretty, and ballads, mostly for Kuhn, that show off her plaintive vibrato
and naturalness. Kuhn, who was Cosette in Les Miserables, has a lovely,
natural quality--even in schleppy costumes--that never lets the histrionics trip
her up. She is complex, but keeps it simple.
Carroll, who looks like a fair
Tom Hanks and sings like a star, is endearing as Anatoly, though his accent sounds like
a Russian Bugs Bunny. Freddie is the obnoxious combination of rock star and Ugly American,
but Casnoff makes us pay attention. Unfortunately, that means we have to listen to
"Pity the Child," a cheap confessional obviously included to humanize Freddie by
making him the product of a broken home. We only hate him more for it.
Robin Wagner's mechanized sets are bleak, yet, but they are virtuosically versatile--and,
whenever things get too cold, David Hersey bathes them in yellow light. Still, when
we travel to the red-light district for a moderately raunchy "One Night in Bangkok,"
it's actually a relief to see a little glitz. As for the show's piercingly loud
amplification, well, after that, traffic was a relief.
--Linda Winer, Newsday 29 April 1988
Few Good Moves in 'Chess': Second Thoughts on First Nights
Is it conceivable, or mere wishful thinking, that Chess, the latest London import,
could mark the end of the grandiose, bloated musical theatre that is all but
In London, where it has been running for over a year now, a proscenium consisting of variously illuminated chess squares and a huge chessboard stage that tips this way and that (or was I?) overpowers a negligible love triangle and a couple of chess matches. The first of the two contests between a bratty young American champion and a decent and fairly young Soviet chap is held in Bangkok, the second in Budapest. Brief passages of dialogue give way to pleasant but unmemorable snatches of music fitted out with commonplace lyrics by Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber's erstwhile collaborator whose idea the whole thing was.
On Broadway, where Chess has just arrived at the Imperial, all the chessboard paraphernalia of proscenium and stage have been scrapped in favor of a number of tall, narrow, gray, slab-like flats that join to form screens or triangular columns or other configurations. The pieces are almost always on the move as the players skirt them as if walking along corridors or streets or else settling into chair and table groupings signifying offices, living rooms, an airport lounge and whatnot. And in the New York version, more attention has been directed to the love triangle in which the American champ's young female assistant (she's really from Budapest originally, but let's not go into that) deserts her loathsome boss to fall for his competitor, who has left a broken marriage behind in Moscow.
The question here posed by Rice and the book writer, Richard Nelson, is who will win in this world of moves--love moves, political moves and one almost forgets, the chess moves themselves. The answer is close to being nobody, especially if you include the audience.
Although the gaudy London scenery has been dispensed with, it might better have remained inasmuch as it was oddly less distracting than Robin Wagner's moving flats [note: they weren't flats, they were triangular towers]. You can't keep your eyes off of them, dull as they are, as you wait to see where and how they'll wind up next. The music, by two members of the defunct Swedish rock group ABBA, is tuneful and expertly arranged, but the only standouts are the wife-mistress duet "I Know Him So Well" and the trio "You and I" for the two women and the Soviet player. You can keep "One Night in Bangkok," a look at the city's lurid night life set to a number that topped the British pop charts a couple of years back.
The singing is fine, though I say this advisedly since the engineer manning the big sound console at the back of the house has the voices screeching much of the time when, for all we know, they may actually be crooning while assuming strangulated expressions.
Nevertheless, I give Judy Kuhn, the chess assistant, high marks for both her vocalism and for having as a child survived the 1956 Hungarian uprising which, in a prologue full of sound and fury, looks like something out of the siege of Stalingrad. David Carroll, too, sings well as the Soviet, and Philip Casnoff does justice to the role of the obnoxious American.
No, it's not a three-character show; all sorts of other characters keep milling around, and Trevor Nunn, who took over the direction abroad from the late Michael Bennett, has kept them occupied matching the pace of the scenery and revolving stage sections. One gets the impression, though, that his heart really wasn't in it and that the director of Nicholas Nickleby was wishing he was back in Dickensian London, where we'd all have been better off.
--Doug Watt, Daily News, 6 May 1988
Chess is a rock musical that seems determined to
blast its way to oblivion, an incoherent shouting match set to music amplified to
The $6 million British import, rewritten for its American production, opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre, in time to meet the May 4 Tony Award nominations cutoff date. It has little chance of winning recognition except perhaps for the ingenious but colorless set design by Robin Wagner who has improved on the concept of towering mobile slabs he devised for Dreamgirls.
The successful London production of the show emphasized chess as a symbol for superpower politics and intrigue by means of spectacular high-tech staging including video screens and hydraulic effects. Lyricist Tim Rice, who conceived the show, brought in American playwright Richard Nelson to humanize Chess for Broadway by emphasizing the love story and its calamitous consequences.
What American audiences get is a musical tragedy that is awkwardly sentimental when it should be genuinely moving, nervously shrill when subtlety could have more effectively conveyed the emotions it attempts to project. The ordinariness of the rock score does nothing to help.
The music of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, one-half of the Swedish rock band ABBA, is so rhythmically deliberate that it makes the hearer yearn for numbers with more propulsions and lilt, even when the composers veer from rock to try their talents at more conventional theatre songs.
Only three numbers are melodic enough to make an impression: "One Night in Bangkok," "I Know Him So Well," and a pretentious hymn to the supranational attributes of the human heart titled "Anthem." Even when they are not helped by the banal lyrics of Tim Rice, who only occasionally exhibits the flair for language shown in his earlier collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Wagner's turntable set never lets the audience down. Cement gray triangular columns and dull metal connecting walls [incorrect--each tower had one dull bronze louvered side] twist and turn into a variety of settings that aid director Trevor Nunn in achieving a fluidity of action that is one of Chess's few strengths.
Settings dissolve into other settings, making it possible for the show to move from the barricades of revolutionary Budapest in 1956 to Bangkok's red-light district with 1,000 feet of neon lights, from Kennedy Airport back to present-day Budapest's luxury hotels and backstreets.
Bangkok and Budapest are the sites of international chess tourneys that pit an American champion, Freddie, against his Soviet counterpart, Anatoly. Freddie's chess second and former girl friend, Hungarian-born Florence, falls in love with Anatoly who decides to defect for a new life with her in America. The Russians do not take this lying down, with dire results for almost all involved.
Judy Kuhn, who played the original Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway, makes an intense and believable Florence, in spite of her tendency to water down most of her songs with tears. Her brass-bound voice stands her in good stead in competition with the high-decibel music.
Philip Casnoff is entirely successful in making Freddie a repulsive egomaniac whose screeching plea for understanding as the product of repulsive parents provides the show with one of its most telling, nerve-wracking passages.
David Carroll's Anatoly is extremely sympathetic and more three dimensional than the other characters, and he exhibits a splendidly robust voice. Harry Goz is outstanding as Molokov, Anatoly's KGB watchdog, who may or may not have a heart of gold.
Turning in fine performances in smaller roles are Marcia Mitzman as Anatoly's abandoned but loving Russian wife, Paul Harmon as a bullying chess arbiter and Dennis Parlato as a Machiavellian CIA type.
A final note: something must be done about the amplification of Broadway shows. Either perfect the technical systems and tone down the sound or revert to pre-rock reliance on the ability of the human voice and orchestra instruments to project sound to an audience with reasonable volume, as the human voice and orchestras have been doing for millennia of theatre history.
--Frederick M. Winship, United Press International, 29 April 1988
Bold Gambit by a Grand Master
When Trevor Nunn won a 1982 Tony Award as best director of a play for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, then came back a year later to collect a Tony as best director of a musical for Cats, people wondered what he could do for an encore. After four years, during which Nunn was directing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in London's West End, in opera and in films, the answer emerged: he could top himself on Broadway. Within four days he opened not one but two megamusicals. Starlight Express earned him yet another Tony nomination for direction; so did Les Misérables, for which he won a Tony.
To have three musicals among the 14 on Broadway is extraordinary. Last week Nunn became unique: he opened a fourth, Chess, which links a Soviet-U.S. summit, a world chess championship and a doomed international romance, has already racked up advance sales of $4 million. If it overcomes bumpy reviews--which also beset Starlight and, to a lesser degree, Cats--Nunn will parallel what he has achieved in London, where the same four shows have been running for years.
The Broadway version of Chess is daringly different from London's gaudy expressionistic phantasm. That show's chess matches are displayed on 128 video screens and refereed by a surreal punk; the production hopscotches from a Tyrolean resort to British boardrooms [?] to Bangkok's red-light district, each cartoonishly evoked. Nunn took over in London, two weeks before rehearsals started, when the late Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls) was stricken with AIDS. Says Nunn: "By the time I came into the project, it was designed and cast, and the basic narrative decisions had been taken."
For Broadway, Nunn insisted on a completely new book and an equally new look. Central to
his vision is a set made of towers painted to look like concrete and placed on turntables
[not turntables--each was "driven" by a stagehand inside it] so they swivel to become a hotel lobby,
an airport, a convention hall, a bedroom. To some extent these spaces resemble one
another, but that is Nunn's point. Where the London Chess suggests the survival
of kitschily various cultures, the Broadway version implies the triumph of a soulless international pragmatism that finds its perfect expression in interchangeable, neobrutalist architecture.
Nunn has wisely downplayed the London theme that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are morally--or amorally--equivalent. He focuses instead on three people who have paid a huge emotional price for success, only to realize that glory does not bring contentment: an American (Philip Casnoff) who has reached the world chess finals; his Soviet counterpart (David Carroll); and the American's adviser and erstwhile bedmate (Judy Kuhn), who falls in love with the Soviet. Theirs is not a charming Ninotchka-style romance: the CIA and the KGB hover on the periphery, exploiting the players and the game. Offsetting the gloom are a clear narrative drive, Nunn's trademark cinematic staging, three superb leading performances by actors willing to be complex and unlikable and one of the best rock scores ever produced in the theatre. This is an angry, difficult, demanding and rewarding show, one that pushes the boundaries of the form.
--William A. Henry III, Time, 9 May 1988
Chess is a game derived from warfare, and perhaps it was inevitable that it should pay
back its debt, if only to Cold Warfare, for which it has frequently provided rhetorical
tropes. The question of whether the musical Chess, which is typical Cold War fare,
is right for this moment of glasnost might well be raised, though conceived by an
Englishman, with music by two Swedes, the show tries to be neutral: It portrays most
Americans, like most Russians, as ruthless opportunists. The intrigues surrounding a
world-championship chess match between a Russian and an American become the master
image for the world's ills, and it certainly works better than checkers would, though
not all that much.
I must begin by registering a serious doubt concerning the
ability of rock music to handle a subject of this gravity. Even if Tim Rice, the original
book writer (the American version was rewritten by Richard Nelson), disclaims any larger
political-allegorical significance, the elaborateness and portentousness of the New York
production (I haven't seen the London one) gives him the lie. And though Benny
Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, of the Swedish rock group ABBA, have come up with
music that by rock standards may pass for unabrasive and civilized, I still find it
largely inadequate to either the global or the personal sufferings it engages.
(Les Miserables gets some help from being a--partly unconscious--pastiche of a
dusty classic.) Here the music is too shallow, and Rice's lyrics are obvious, even
trite, and use rhyme far too flabbily for a score composed by a rhyme scheme: ABBA.
This is the story of a politically and commercially exploited match that begins in Bangkok and continues in Budapest. The American challenger, Freddie Trumper, is modeled (we are told) on Bobby Fischer and John McEnroe, and has for his second, Florence Vassey, whose Hungarian father disappeared during the 1956 uprising in Budapest, but not before he instilled in the by now totally Americanized young woman as much love of chess and liberty as a four-year-old could absorb. She seems to be Freddie's ex-mistress, but falls promptly in love with the defending champion, Anatoly Sergievsky, who is estranged from his wife. (These names, and everything else Russian and Hungarian in the show, are either inauthentic or mauled; but French, "Qu' est-ce que c'est la difference?" and English, "one less mistake," fare not much better.) Anatoly's second is Molokov, an old smoothie from the secret police, but Walter, who acts as Freddie's agent, is quite a different sort of agent as well. The match is sponsored and judged by a Greek businessman, and not by the World Chess Federation; Budapest is said to have only one luxury hotel. Such flagrant inattention to detail does not inspire confidence.
But then, little else does. Anatoly defects to the U.S.A., and the Soviets put every sort of pressure on him and Florence to get him back. Svetlana, Anatoly's wife, becomes a pawn in this game, but proves ever so loving and nice, so what was that estrangement all about? The story is consistently confused, the characterization confusingly inconsistent, and the tragic outcome thoroughly uncompelling. There have been persistent rumors about Rice and Nelson's vehement divergence on the book, but the discrepancies are such that we must suspect Trevor Nunn, the director, and perhaps even the producers to have added to them. The net effect is that we do not care about what happens to anyone. Chess began its life as a record; with all the added fuss, it's still a turntable, not passions, that seems to spin the plot.
Robin Wagner, the talented designer of Dreamgirls, has been made to recycle that design. The number of towers has been upped to twelve--triangular slabs that revolve, transform themselves, move every which way by computer [and stagehands] on a stage that itself revolves. There is fascination in watching all that massive technology dance a computerized ballet--especially since the actual choreography is minimal and pitiful--and there are times when a suggestive, usually chilling, image materializes. But neither the exoticism of Bangkok nor the historic spell of Budapest is conveyed with anything like the attention lavished on, say, a fragment of an airport. And even David Hersey, the superb lighting designer, seems to have been asleep at the switch.
The cast is not to blame. Judy Kuhn is an extremely persuasive Florence, making up with acting, voice, and warmth for what she lacks in looks. David Carroll is a thoroughly believable and likable Anatoly, both histrionically and vocally. As Freddie, Philip Casnoff may start out even more disagreeable than necessary, but his rendition of his big number, "Pity the Child," has such anger and pathos as to win us over not only to him but also, briefly, to the show. Harry Goz is pungently wily as the bearish Molokov, and, with one or two not intolerable exceptions, the others are good as well; all deserve credit for fearlessly treading their way among those Symplegadeslike towers.
Nunn's direction, if you buy the concept, is effective enough, and there is something to the notion that our lives take place inside a bunker whose walls have a mind to squashing us. But musically, verbally, psychologically, the show needs to be more absorbing. The Hungarian for café is kávéház, not kavehaza, as a huge sign here has it. Those three missing acute accents may be emblematic of what's wrong with Chess.
--John Simon, New York magazine, 9 May 1988
Chess, the new British import (American edition) at the Imperial--idea and lyrics by Tim Rice, score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, book by Richard Nelson--opens with a prologue, set in Budapest in 1956. Soldiers rush through the streets shooting, there are shouts and yells, and, in an underground shelter, a little girl is taken away from her father. The first act is set in the Bangkok Hilton, at the present time, I guess, where the first game of an international chess match is about to start. The contenders are Freddie and Anatoly, an American and a Russian. At the table, in the midst of play, Freddie, who, Mr. Rice has said, is loosely modeled on Bobby Fischer and John McEnroe, starts a row. Florence, his very pretty second, tries to smooth things over with Anatoly, and they fall in love. Thus the springboard for the plot. In the second act, the match continues in Budapest, and we find out that Florence was the little girl in the shelter back in '56--a fact that proves of use to the devious Russians, what with hints of defection by Anatoly in the air. Enough of this, except to note that there is a great deal of plot.
I must say that, to my surprise, I enjoyed Chess quite a lot--partly, I suppose, because of the law of low expectations; it certainly sounded like yet another transatlantic glacier. But also because the performances, by an American company, under the direction of Trevor Nunn, of the Royal Shakespeare Company, are lively and credible and often humorous; Mr. Rice is an expert, experienced lyricist, and the score by the two Swedish composers--imitation American rock at first hearing--is certainly serviceable. Most important, the acting of the three principals--Judy Kuhn as Florence, David Carroll as Anatoly, and Philip Casnoff as Freddie--is of a strength that goes beyond musical comedy, and their singing, even with that deafening amplification, is pretty wonderful, too. They are very well supported by Harry Goz, Marcia Mitzman, Dennis Parlato, Neal Ben-Ari, and Paul Harman. The scenery--a turntable and floating panels and all kinds of production confections--was designed by Robin Wagner and lighted by David Hersey, and the costumes were designed by Theoni V. Aldredge.
--Edith Oliver, New Yorker, 9 May 1988
Tim Rice's musical Chess has undergone a major overhaul on its transfer from London's West End to Broadway. It now has a totally new set concept, drastically rewritten book, reshuffling of songs and an American cast.
It makes for a vast improvement over the show Britishers have been seeing for two years (it opened there in May 1986) but, alas, all the current efforts still do not cough forth a winning evening in the theatre. Chess, in its present form at the Imperial theatre, is still cold as an ice cube.
Book by Richard Nelson--which begins with a prologue set in 1956 Hungary before switching to Bangkok, Thailand, in the present day--is the saga of two participants in a world championship chess match. One is an obnoxious American (Philip Casnoff), the other a whiny Russian (David Carroll), both of whom are involved with the same girl (Judy Kuhn) when away from the chess boards.
Devoid of genuine heart, heat or fascination, the story plods along, interspersed by some two dozen songs by Rice (lyrics) and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (music). Even the direction of Trevor Nunn is unable to overcome a basic question which arises early: Who cares?
It is also a long sit under any circumstances. Chess currently clocks in at well over three hours.
The major assets of the musical are its singing voices. Kuhn, who was the original N.Y. Cosette in Les Miserables, has an effortless and dynamic voice as the Hungarian refugee who quickly gravitates from bedding and supporting the American chess champ to take up with his Russian challenger.
Carroll and Casnoff also display sensational singing pipes although Casnoff's impact is diluted by the obnoxious character he plays. As directed by Nunn, he's the kind of guy who deserves no more than a boot in the backside, a further handicap to grabbing audience involvement since it badly unbalances concern about the all-important love triangle.
However, the characters played by Kuhn and Carroll are not particularly endearing, either. Nor are the supporting characters as sketched by Harry Goz, Dennis Parlato, Paul Harman and others. It tells you something when the only genuinely likable person in the whole charade is the Russian's wimpy wife (Marcia Mitzman) who appears late and but briefly.
Another flaw in the production is the scenery devised for this edition by Robin Wagner. Twelve enormous pertactoids are kept in constant swirling motion on stage--at least half them big enough to appeal to King Kong for his next climb--and they consistently overshadow the actors.
Besides being obtrusive, those drab slabs also seem to have a mind of their own, and more than once, attention gets pulled away from the Chess story in anticipation of watching at least one or more Equity members getting mauled, crushed or pulverized in full audience view.
Things would be improved considerably if the Chess score by Rice, Andersson and Ulvaeus was sensational or, at the least, bulging with some memorable music. Unfortunately, it isn't. Several songs play well, mainly due to the superb voices delivering them, but none strike a strong response, at least on one hearing.
"One Night in Bangkok," which became a hit in London when Chess opened there, is a bouncy number but is delivered in only a so-so manner at precisely the time a boffo production knockout is needed. (In London, "Bangkok" opened the second act; in New York, it comes midway in Act I.) Dance was staged by Lynne Taylor-Corbett.
As with most Tim Rice musicals, this one can be expected to have its devotees, and it is certainly packaged professionally enough to be rated a respectable Broadway addition with its direction by Nunn, costume designs by Theoni V. Aldredge and other contributors.
But it's unlikely Chess will garner much audience enthusiasm or ticket-buyer support after it grabs a first wave of attention from Broadway regulars anxious to check it out.
The bottom line: don't expect Chess to have Broadway legs.
--Robert Osborne, The Hollywood Reporter, 29 April 1988
Technological glitz, high-decibel pop music and an earnest book aren't enough to make a hit out of Chess. The London musical has been revised and improved for Broadway and will draw initial business, but it lacks the ingredients for longrun prosperity.
The show offers insistent, rhythmically propulsive Euro-pop music and a love triangle story against the background of U.S.-Soviet rivalry as reflected in a championship chess tourney. The book, rewritten for Broadway by U.S. playwright Richard Nelson, is much more substantial than most latter-day libretti, but its solemn tone clashes with the trite and clumsily manipulative songs.
Trevor Nunn has done another highly proficient if overly slick job of whizbang staging, and there's a technically admiral scenic concept by Robin Wagner.
Everything about the show on the tech level is expertly accomplished, another manifestation of the stagecraft legerdemain that has dominated the musical theatre of late. The $50 top undoubtedly is necessary.
What the show isn't is much fun. The story of the three-sided relationship among an idealistic Hungarian-American chess coach, a crude and arrogant American champion, and a noble-minded Russian player who defects to the West, is ploddingly dull and soapy beneath the flashy surface. At close to three hours running time, Chess asks more of audience patience than it offers in entertainment.
Songs, by former ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and English lyricist Tim Rice, are a mostly disappointing assortment of unmelodic and flavorless numbers that seem distinctly unoriginal.
The few exceptions to the aural wallpaper sound, notably the pretty duet "I Know Him So Well" and the ballad "Heaven Help My Heart" do hold and please the audience. Rice's lyrics, sad to relate, are flat, unadorned by imagery, pedestrian.
Nelson has done more than a mere workmanlike job on the book rewrite: he has attempted with some success to develop characters of psychological depth, with an overlay of pointedly sardonic political commentary about the basic similarities of motive among American and Russian power-holders.
The young woman and her conflicted Russian lover are real human creations, while the nasty American egomaniac is colorful if too one-note. But the oppressive framework in which they function--loud and unlikable music and nonstop scenic razzmatazz--squashes the humanity of the characters and forestalls the kind of unreserved audience empathy that a hit musical should command.
For instance, when the heroine has a reunion in Budapest with her Hungarian father, a former street-fighter against the Russians in the 1956 revolt who's been imprisoned ever since and whom she believed dead, it's a potentially moving scene.
But the ABBAmen and Rice give them a weepy and phony lullaby to sing that recalls the famous National Lampoon magazine cover of a pistol held to a lovable pooch's head: "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog."
Visually, the show is initially fascinating as Wagner's phalanx of towers--each piloted from within by a stagehand--swerve and curve into distinct configurations with astonishing coordination. But before too long the towers begin to take over and compete with the human story. They get in the way.
As in Les Miserables, Nunn makes stage-savvy use of a massive turntable to keep the action moving forward with filmlike speed. But unlike Les Miz, the music doesn't pick up the audience.
Judy Kuhn, coming off attention-getting performances in Rags and Les Miz, has the best songs and the best role, and her beautiful pop-soprano voice is the show's chief pleasure. She acts the sympathetic, gutsy role with spirit and heart.
David Carroll, as the good-guy Russian torn between love of the American and love of his country, sings stirringly and acts the part with the right notes of dignity and self-doubt. It's a big leap forward for this musical leading man.
As the ugly, self-loving American (whom Nelson should have tempered with some complexity) Philip Casnoff has the right wolfish snarl.
There's a highly praiseworthy performance from Harry Goz as the rueful and world-weary Russian official, and some overacting from Dennis Parlato as a villainous American CIA type. Marcia Mitzman earns sympathy as the Russian's forgiving wife.
Chess is a show of too many paradoxes: a serious book awkwardly fitted under unserious and lyrically banal songs, a loud, scenically grandiose presentation that's essentially dull. It won't disappoint everyone, however, and will get off the a start at the boxoffice. Then word of mouth will begin to spread and the verdict probably won't be good.
--Humm, Variety, 29 April 1988