ENO London Coliseum
26 April - 2 June 2018

The English National Opera does a semi-staged musical once a year and for 2018 their choice was Chess, the first West End production since the original in 1986. The ENO has a very large orchestra (72+) and chorus (62+) and they would all be used in the production. Michael Ball (Anatoly), Tim Howar (Freddie) Cassidy Janson (Florence), Alexandra Burke (Svetlana), Phillip Browne (Molokov), and Cedric Neal (Arbiter) led the cast. The character of Walter was omitted. Laurence Connor directed and choreography was by Stephan Mear. The orchestra was led by John Rigby.

The set was a series of large black squares scattered over the entire playing area, outlined by (mostly) blue LED lights (they changed colors occasionally). Most Chess productions have used video images in some way, but this was the first time they were so huge and so intrusive. The stage had a downstage section that rose on hydraulics for the chess matches which meant the audience in the stalls only had an underview of the scene. Many of the actors exited the playing area down stairs into what would have been the orchestra pit, which was distracting.

The overture was wonderful, with the huge orchestra on high scafolding upstage, but then the assault began. The squares formed screens onto which video was projected, mostly from two cameras onstage. Some historical footage was included to set the time in the late seventies/early eighties. But in the main, the massive projections of Soviet flags, stars and hammers and sickles, etc., made it difficult to figure out who was singing on the stage and was extremely distracting and often confusing.


It soon became clear that the production's priorities were 1) the cameras, 2) the actors, and 3) the audience. The actors often faced upstage, away from the audience [!], and the images were reversed--Anatoly even wore his wedding ring on his right hand so it would look right for the projections, not for the audience. It's doubtful the director knew of the Eastern European tradition of right hand wedding rings, but if he did, then it's wrong on the videos. Also, the Madonna-style microphones were on the side opposite the audience, which meant that on the screens, everyone looked like they had a growth on their cheek. During the first week of previews, the projected images lagged about a half second behind the actors on stage. This was fixed by opening night.

The show mostly followed the concept album's story but used all the music added in the original London production. In numbers like "Merano" and "Mountain Duet," the large cast was mostly bunched together under the orchestra's scafolding, again making it difficult to visually spot the principals. "Der Kleine Franz" [why???] was included for the first time since the original London production. "Embassy Lament" used four men instead of two. "Merchandisers" had a bevy of cheerleaders and an Uncle Sam on stilts. The U.S. is the only country that does merchandising? And during "One Night in Bangkok," what were the cirque de soleil-style acrobats suppposed to represent?

Michael Ball sang well, but was a little long in the tooth for a romantic lead. His rapport with Cassidy Janson was non-existent. She sang well, but was so slender and petite that she had little stage presence amid the mobs and projections. Since her first song doesn't come until well into Act I, she didn't have the opportunity to take the stage with some force and charisma. Tim Howar was an excellent (if repellant, as usual) Freddie and Alexandra Burke was vocally splendid but lacks the experience to make Svetlana work, especially in "Someone Else's Story" and a lackluster new number, "He Is a Man, He Is a Child," which opened the second act. Yet oddly, she came off as a more powerful character than Florence, possibly because of the two added songs, but also because she mostly sang them on an empty stage. Svetlana and Anatoly's child is in this production, played by an obviously terrified boy, who was fully miked though he spoke only one line. During the first preview, Tim Howar's wife went into labor during the first act, and the unrehearsed understudy (Chellen Chugg Jones) went on for the second act to great acclaim.


The projections continued virtually nonstop throughout the show. It was very hard to concentrate on the actors when their faces were projected 20 feet high behind them. It would have worked well at Wembley Arena, or simply filmed with no actors present at all. The lighting (by Patrick Woodroffe) consisted only of downlights, no follow spots or light bar suspended above the audience, and lit only the upper part of the actors' bodies (and their shoes). This may be a limitation of the theatre, but it made the whole cast look a bit spooky.

All in all, this production proved that, as always, the last thing we need is another version, especially one cobbled together from two or more earlier incarnations. The story was more confusing than ever, and even the music was overwhelmed by the projections. The huge cast seemed stifled by the set and the production. Every new version adds things instead of removing them, supposedly in the interest of clarity but most new versions are less clear.


14-18 February 2018
Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.

Directed by Michael Mayer

FLORENCE.............Karen Olivo
FREDDIE.................Raul Esparaza
ANATOLY.................Ramin Karimloo
SVETLANA................Ruthie Ann Miles
MOLOKOV.................Bradley Dean
WALTER..................Sean Allan Krill
THE ARBITER.............Bryce Pinkham

The Company
Paige Faure, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Casey Garvin, Nkrumah Gatling, Adam Halpin, Ericka Hunter, Sean Maclaughlin, Morgan Marcell, Marissa McGowan, Chelsea Turbin, Christopher Vo, Ricardo A. Zayas

Scenic Design: David Rockwell
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Kai Harada
Production Design: Darrel Maloney
Arranger and Orchestrator: Anders Eljas Music Supervisor/Additional Arrangements: Brian Usifer
Music Director: Chris Fenwick
Executive Producer: Jeffrey Finn
Choreographer: Lorin Lararro

It was quite thrilling to sit in an audience for Chess which was so wildly enthusiastic. The last time was closing night at the Prince Edward. And it wasn't just a bunch of Chess geeks either; there were people who had seen it in London, the general theatregoing public, and teenage girls who were fans of Raul Esparza. Kennedy Center misread the interest in this show. T-shirts sold out on opening night and the show was sold out for its brief run.

The "set" consisted of scafolding, with the orchestra on the top level and the cast seated in a semicircle below them, with a sprinkling of large chess pieces behind them. The chorus was all in grey, Freddie and Anatoly in black, Florence in blue and Svetlana in red. There was a Narrator who became The Arbiter, and at least half of the ensemble were dancers.

The new book for this production was effective in setting the time and place, but it was a little heavy-handed, though it contained a lot of much-needed humor. The incessant mention of the SALT II treaty probably went over the heads of younger audience members. As with many contemporary versions of this show, there was a lot of screaming. Microphones are good enough today that this isn't necessary and is not a substitute for emotion.

The politically savvy audience didn't miss the humor in Frederick Trumper's name or in all the political jokes. Several of the principals were still "on book" but that did not detract from their performances. Raul Esparza was suffering with a throat infection, but gamely carried on, though his voice was almost gone by the final performance. Ruthie Ann Miles was pregnant, but the costume designer effectively disguised her condition. The chorus shed their gray costumes for "One Night in Bangkok", and the women had on extremely scanty red underwear, which was a bit much for a concert version.

The principals and chorus were all excellent, the casting flawless, the new book had problems but was a good start. The projections were intrusive and went on too long. It is apparent that the creators have wrested the show from the control of Trevor Nunn and Richard Nelson, who kept the Broadway version contractually mandatory in North America for 30 years. Checkmate!


The original production was partly about the media circus surrounding an international chess championship. The vidiwalls were used to both illustrate the worldwide media attention but also to show the chess games in progress during the musical. The background of the Cold War is there in Rice's lyrics for "U.S. vs U.S.S.R." and in the dialogue. So why does every producer and director now feel they must project the history of the Cold War during the show?

The ENO production took this to an absurd level, making the action on stage nearly irrelevant. So did the Kennedy Center production, to a lesser degree. You either go to the theatre to see live actors onstage or you go to the movies. Combining the two is messy, distracting and off-putting. I have seen over 40 'versions' of this show and this was, by far, the worst. Production, casting. lighting, projections, set, all bad. The Dinner Theatre in Boulder Colorado, e.g., was far better.


London, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Sweden
The first concert version of Chess was the first of the five European concerts which introduced the Concept Album. It took place with all the artists from the recording at the Barbican Centre in London on 27 October 1984 before a sold-out and eventually wildly enthusiastic audience. This was repeated the next night at La Salle Playtel in Paris, then the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, CCH Hamburg and ending at the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.


The next major concert was organized 9 January 1989 by David Carroll (Anatoly in the Broadway production) as a benefit concert in Carnegie Hall. Again, the house sold out and again, the audience was thrilled. But this was unique since the entire original company (except two ensemble members) came from all over the world to perform the songs from the show that had failed at the Imperial Theatre less than a year before. But the music, freed from the dreary sets and dialogue, proved to be as potent as always.


Over the years, starting after the London production closed, Chess has been staged in concert in Sweden. Thanks to David Polberger in Sweden, the following history is translated from the most recent concert's programme: "When the chess tournament was settled in Skelletftea of Sweden in the fall of 1989, Chess in Concert was once again performed in Sweden [for the first time since the Concept Album was introduced]. Three sold out concerts, over 10,000 people in the audience and it was recorded for TV. All that because one enthusiastic theatre director thought that 'a chess tournament requires Chess.'"

"The success gave the concert a [new life]..." and cities all over Sweden clamored for Chess In Concert. "The same solo artists and the same pop choir have performed at every concert. Only the big orchestra and the big choir have changed. And that has become part of the whole idea, that the same group of people will always perform Chess."

"Someone has estimated that over 2 million people have seen Chess, either as a musical or as a concert. In June 1998, "30 thousand people were added to this number when Tommy, Karin, Anders and the others perform[ed] in Gothenburg, Helsingborg, Stockholm and Skokloster accompanied by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra."

"The first time this ensemble performed Chess together was in August of 1994." The Swedish Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was ready to launch a new concert hall in Eriksberg--a former docklands area--and chose Chess as its opening attraction. This series of now-legendary concerts inaugurated more than a new building. They became an annual event, held in Gothenburg each June. The August 1994 concert was recorded and its CD remains available in many countries. Tommy Körberg recreates his role as Anatoly, with Anders and Karin Glenmark (Swedish recording artists who did vocals on the original Concept Album) as Freddie and Florence and original, London and Broadway orchestrator Anders Eljas at the podium as conductor. Benny Andersson played both piano and accordion for the concert. "'Our music cannot sound better than this,' said Benny Andersson" after the initial 1994 concerts.


In 1991 a Chess concert was performed (in English) in Denmark and broadcast on Danish television (with subtitles). It was the Concept Album lyrics and arrangements with "Someone Else's Story" from Broadway interpolated. Ms. Renihan (who had changed the spelling of her name to more reflect its pronunciation) had, of course, played Florence for more than a year at the Prince Edward in London. The other artists are all truly excellent.

Florence.................Grania Renihan
Freddie..................Derek Chessor
Anatoly..................Kurt Ravn
Molokov..................Ulrik Cold
Svetlana.................Yvonne Ritz Anderson
The Arbiter..............Allan Mortensen

What a Scene, What a Joy
The Russian and Molokov/Where I Want to Be
The Arbiter's Song
The American and Florence/Nobody's Side
Someone Else's Story
Bangkok/One Night in Bangkok
I Know Him So Well
Pity the Child
You and I


On April 12, 1992, Chess in Concert was staged at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Canada to benefit Equity Fights Aids/Actors Fund of Canada (netting over $80,000 for the cause).
Keith Batten & Eric Goldstein present
Chess in Concert

The actors (all superb) came from then currently-running Toronto productions of Aspects of Love, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.
(in alphabetical order)
Gregor Vassy.....................MICHAEL BURGESS (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables)
Florence Vassy.................SUSAN GILMOUR (Fantine in Les Miserables)
Svetlana Sergievsky...........KELLI JAMES (Giulietta Trapani in Aspects of Love)
Anatoly Sergievsky............ROBERT LONGO (Jean Prouvaire in Les Miserables)
Freddie Trumper................ROB LOREY (Aspects of Love)
Molokov...........................GORDON McLAREN (Inspector Javert in Les Miserables)
Walter..............................DAVID MUCCI (Les Miserables)
The Arbiter.......................JAY TURVEY (Feuilly in Les Miserables)
Guest Artist......................COLM WILKINSON (The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera)
COMPANY: Lori Alter, Lisa Atkinson, Virginia Barter, Elizabeth Beeler, Sheena Bellingham, Pierre Bénard, Mark Bernkoff, Robin Blake, Scott Bolton, John Burke, Rod Campbell, Dan Chameroy, Bruce Clayton, Isabelle Corradi, Devin Dalton, Natasha Danchenko, Christine Donato, Dewi Fairclough, Catriona Ferguson, Lisa Forget, Tracy Goltsman, Maryke Hendrikse, Kevin Hicks, Kymberley Huffman, Cara Hunter, Gabrielle Jones, Donna Kelly, Mark Kelso, Glen Kerr, Philip Kerr, Doug LaBrecque, Pierre Ladouceur, Sylvain Landry, Wendy Lands, Karlisa Lindbjerg, Rhonda Liss, Daniel MacDonell, Doug MacNaughton, Tim Magwood, Janet Martin, Sharron Matthews, Darren McCaffery, Anne Mirvish, Eve Montpetit, Frank Moore, Paul Mulloy, David Nairn, Robert Pilon, David Playfair, Jennifer Potter, Jennifer Rockett, Kate Rodrigues, Jasmine Roy, Donna Rubin, Fernando Santos, Andrea Sherwood, Christopher Shyer, Barbara Smith, Christy Taylor, Bruce Thompson, Susan Wesson, Jessica Wilson.

Overture/The Story of Chess/Apukad (Budapest, Broadway Version)
What a Scene, What a Joy (Bangkok, Broadway version)
Reporters/Smile You Got Your First Exclusive Story (London version)
Molokov and Anatoly/Where I Want to Be (London version)
How Many Women? (Broadway version)
The Arbiter's Song (London version
U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. (Broadway version)
Quartet (London version)
Someone Else's Story (Broadway version)
One Night in Bangkok Terrace Duet (Broadway version)
Chess (instrumental - London version)
So You Got What You Want/Nobody's Side (Broadway version
Reporters/Anthem (Broadway version)
Entr'act/Hungarian Folk Song (Budapest - Broadway version)
Heaven Help My Heart
No Contest (Broadway version)
You and I (Broadway version)
Let's Work Together (Broadway version)
I Know Him So Well
Pity the Child
Chorus of Champions (London version)
Endgame (Broadway version)
You and I (Broadway version)
Apukad (Broadway/Chicago version)
Finale/Anthem (Colm Wilkinson and company)

There were no sets, but a rear projection added some visual interest with scenes from the Hungarian Revolution, chess games, and other chess-related images. The concert was broadcast on Canadian television. The cast sang and acted in front of a full orchestra, in costume. Several dancers were used for "One Night in Bangkok." The progress of the chess match was illustrated by projected newspaper headlines. As can be seen below, material was drawn from several versions and there were a few oddities: the Arbiter sang a stanza not used since the first weeks of the London production ("Don’t try to tempt me/You’ve no hope/I don’t like women/I don’t take dope...") which made little sense as the character was played as on Broadway, not as in London. However, as with all concert versions, the reception for this one was rapturous.

BC/EFA poster

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids NEW YORK CONCERTS
Neil Berg and Robert Evan
in association with
Eric Krebs, Joseph Grano, Jr. and Overland Entertainment
A Benefit Concert for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids

Since Chess closed on Broadway, there have been many regional productions of the musical, some staged or semi-staged. But a great deal of attention was focused on a recent pair of Chess in Concert benefit performances because many of the participants were concurrently starring in Broadway musicals. Presented on two Sunday nights (10 and 17 May 1998), many of the performers literally ran from their curtain calls to the John Houseman Theatre and onto its stage.

The superb logo designed exclusively for these concerts was created by James Marino and is © 1998 Bucket-A-Fish and is used by permission.

The cast was stellar: Robert Evan, Christiane Noll and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod are were starring in Jekyll and Hyde. Michael Cerveris and Brian D'Arcy James came from starring roles in Titanic, Dave Clemmons from The Scarlet Pimpernel, Alice Ripley from Side Show and Danny Zolli, a veteran of dozens of productions of Jesus Christ Superstar. Most of the ensemble also came directly from Broadway's stages.

Narrator.............MICHAEL CERVERIS
Freddie (17 May).....DAVE CLEMMONS
Freddie (10 May).....BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES
Anatoly..............ROBERT EVAN
Molokov..............RAYMOND JARAMILLO McLEOD
Florence.............CHRISTIANE NOLL
Svetlana.............ALICE RIPLEY
The Arbiter.......DANNY ZOLLI
WITH Bill E. Dietrich, Jennifer Little, Robert Longo, Michelle Mallardi, Michael Messer, Kevyn Morrow, Brad Oscar, Trevor Richardson, Jeri Sager, Douglas Storm, Kay Story, Eileen Tepper, Allyson Tucker, Laura Voss.

Directed by Philip Hoffman
Musical Direction Neil Berg
Choral Direction Wendy Bobbitt
Executive Producer Bruce Roberts
Production Supervisor Caralyn Spector
Production Stage Manager Babette Roberts
Assistant Stage Manager Suzie Tucker
Production Assistant Linda Russak
Marketing BB Theatrical Promotions and Jennifer Hall

What a Scene, What a Joy
Where I Want to Be
The Arbiter's Song/US vs USSR
You Wanna Lose Your Only Friend
Someone Else's Story
Mountain Duet
So You Got What You Want
Nobody's Side
Embassy Lament
One Night in Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
You and I
I Know Him So Well
The Story of Chess
Hymn to Chess
The Deal
Pity the Child
You and I

This concert also added a Narrator and a number of the London production's songs were used including "Merano," "Embassy Lament" and "The Arbiter's Song." Svetlana was given Broadway's "Someone Else's Story" as well as "Heaven Help My Heart." The concerts sold out well in advance and the ecstatic audience cheered every number, especially "The Arbiter's Song" and "Pity the Child." There was a great deal of discussion in the lobby afterwards that it was definitely time for a major revial of Chess.

ODDITIES and a totally opinionated Editorial

© 2001 - Sylvia Stoddard