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DVD Review: Chess In Concert

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I once had the pleasure of seeing a performance of Chess at the tiny 99-seat Hudson Theatre in Hollywood back in 1995 with the great Marcia Mitzman (who also starred in the Broadway version of The Who’s Tommy) starring opposite Sean Smith. It was a joy to see, and it differed vastly from any album version I had previously heard (but I wasn’t complaining – although my mother was, as I recall).

Chess is one of those musicals that you can see ten times over and never once see the same thing. It’s own author, lyricist Tim Rice, referred to it as “a work in progress” in the liner notes for the original 1984 concept album that would go on to spawn a phenomenon. The basic storyline is simple, even for a musical: it’s a love triangle between a woman and two men – one American and one Russian – who happen to be competing against each other in the world chess championship during the Cold War. Intrigue, backstabbing and espionage loom around every corner for all – even during such a routinely straightforward game as chess. However, every manifestation ever produced – from the largest spectacles to the smallest of stage productions has made numerous changes to the characters and story. My guess would be that Tim Rice is very proud of this one – and wants to get it right someday, so he’s still testing it out.

Rice had frequently worked with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber on several lavish productions (which have become hits in their own right) in the past. For Chess, though, Rice made a very wise move and departed from such aspects as singing messiahs and Technicolor dreamcoats, giving the whole story a higher factor of believability and brining us back down to Earth for a change. The entire project sat brewing in the back of Rice’s head for several years. Finally, when the opportunity to turn the work into reality arose, it would not be Andrew Lloyd Webber writing the music. Instead, Chess’ composers would be Swedish musicians Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. If the names don’t mean much to you, perhaps this will: they were the BB in ABBA.

The concept album was a hit. Several singles branched out into the world of mainstream success, including “I Know Him So Well” and the even-more popular “One Night In Bangkok” (yes, that “One Night In Bangkok” came from a musical).  Within two years, the album and an altered story made their way to the stage in London’s West End. It ran for nearly three years. A reworked (read: Americanized) version in the late 80s hit Broadway. It flopped, and rightfully so – it sucked (RCA even discontinued the soundtrack from that particular version because it was so bad).

And so, here we are with the first and only version of Chess to ever be filmed and released on home video (there was a promo videocassette for a few songs from the concept album, but that doesn’t count—although it’s a great find nonetheless). Filmed in 2008 at the massive Royal Albert Hall in London, Chess In Concert presents yet another interpretation of Tim Rice’s epic Cold War musical. How does this version compare to all of the others? Well, to quote directly from the musical itself, “Everything’s altered, yet nothing has changed.”

Production-wise, Chess In Concert is about as balls-to-the-wall as you can get for a stage musical. And yet, it’s still very simplistic. Dialogue is sparse. Sets are nonexistent. A huge monitor above the stage reveals locations or even lyrics when necessary. The West End Chorus surrounds the City of London Philharmonic in the back. The actors perform in front of a crowded 5,000+ audience, occasionally sharing the spotlight with the London Studio Centre Dancers.

Leading the show this time ‘round is Grammy-nominated Josh Groban as Russian chess champ Anatoly Sergievsky, the tortured protagonist who longs for a life where he can pursue his love of the game—without all of the political and psychological games he currently deals with. Playing the part of Freddie Trumper, Anatoly’s American opponent, is Rent performer Adam Pascal. To call Trumper an arrogant prick would only be a compliment. His second (or, assistant, if you don’t speak Check) is Hungarian-born Florence Vassy, whose father is believed to have been captured or killed by the Russians during the 1956 uprising.

It doesn’t take long for Florence to express some interest in her colleague’s opponent, much to Freddie’s dismay (Freddie has to constantly reminds her that the Russians are the enemies). As time goes by, Florence and Anatoly become an item, much to the dismay of Anatoly’s second, Alexander Molokov (David Bedella)—who is actually a KGB agent. Further intrigue arises as Anatoly defects to the U.S. following his defeat over Freddie and Global Television reporter Walter de Courcy (Clarke Peters) hires the disgraced chess player to set up a few political games of their own. Things go from bad to worse for star-crossed lovers Anatoly and Florence when Molokov brings Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana (Kerry Ellis), to Bangkok during his next championship in order to force him to lose concentration. Marti Pellow brings up the rear of the cast as the Arbiter (and sometimes Narrator).

Did you get all that? Don’t worry, there’s no need to—watch it and you’ll settle in just fine. Although Tim Rice claims this is the “official version” of the musical, I would disagree (I should point out that one of my goals in life is to make the definitive theatrical version)—Chess still needs some ironing out. Until that happens however (and it’s doubtful it ever will), Chess In Concert fills the void admirably. It’s a stunning, emotionally-fulfilling performance of one of the greatest musicals ever devised. And you should get it for that reason alone.

On DVD, Chess In Concert looks absolutely beautiful. The concert was filmed live with several cameras, and Reprise Records has done a remarkable job in preserving the event in an anamorphic widescreen presentation. On the soundtrack end of the spectrum, Chess In Concert may be viewed with either a dazzling 5.1 Dolby Digital track or a 2.0 Stereo Surround option. Very large yellow English subtitles are available, should you find it hard to follow the lyrics. The only special feature to be found on the disc is a trailer for the program. The DVD case itself houses an informative booklet with some new liner notes by Tim Rice.

Tim Rice also appears in the concert’s prologue (which can only be seen by accessing “Play All” from the menu—if you select Act I, you’ll miss this completely), introducing the cast and conductor David Firman. For the diehard fans, Reprise Records has also issued two releases of Chess – In Concert on CD. A 2-disc set presents the musical in its entirety (which is also titled Chess In Concert), while a single-disc edition, Highlights From Chess In Concert, treats listeners to the 19 major tracks from the production.

Bottom line: Chess In Concert isn’t the ultimate adaptation that it could be. Many of the performances could be handled by better people. But this is a stage musical. Not a movie. So sit back, relax, and take in the latest first account of Chess on video.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.