Chess in Concert

Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Warner Music Entertainment

Chess has never quite reached the heights of musical theatre that were predicted when the concept album first appeared in 1984. It ran for three years in the West End (1986) but a substantially re-written version died on Broadway, running for only eight weeks. It has gone through many incarnations since but this concert version, says Tim Rice in his introduction, is definitive.

It's been adapted by Rice and Hugh Wooldridge and is substantially the same as the original album, with the addition of "Someone Else's Story" (sung by Svetlana), which was added for the Broadway version.

It has one hell of a cast - Josh Groban as Anatoly, Idina Menzel (Florence), Adam Pascal (Trumper), David Badella (Molokov), Kerry Ellis (Svetlana), Marti Pellow (The Arbiter) and Clark Peters (de Courcy) - ten soloists, eight other singers, twenty dancers and a 100-strong chorus with the City of London Philharmonic providing the accompaniment. It was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in May, 2008, and is released today (14th September, 2009) in both DVD and audio CD formats.

So, how does it stand up to the passage of time?

Very well indeed. In fact, it's probably more accessible now than it was when first written, when there were still clear memories of the Fischer/Spassky championship which was seen as part of the Cold War, ending the thirty year domination of the Soviet Union in chess. With the political overtones more or less vanished, audiences are better able to focus on the personal stories. It's rather like another of Rice's musicals, Evita. With the taint of fascism and post-war protection of Nazi fugitives removed, Juan and Eva Perón's personal story can take centrestage.

Musically the anthemic nature of the Abba duo's work strikes a real chord today, especially when set alongside the yearning of the already mentioned "Someone Else's Story" and my own personal favourite, "I Know Him So Well". I was surprised to find that the big hit of the 80s recording, "One Night in Bangkok", sounds very dated and is not the highlight I expected.

The cast is superb (although I do have some reservations about Menzel who is a little harsh on occasion) and the semi-staged nature of the concert adds to the impact. Highly recommended!

An afterthought: surely the show is ready for a new, fully-staged version?

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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