I never thought I’d see Chess performed professionally ever again (I’ve seen some highly entertaining amateur versions) and yet here we were sitting in the dark at the Albert Hall watching some of Broadway’s hottest stars bringing it back to life. And making a new generation fall in love with it.
Chess is a guilty pleasure I’ll never apologise for having (although owning up to having the Swedish version may tip that into perilous territory). How could I not love it? I adore ABBA and will always worship Tim Rice’s way with a lyric (and Chess contains some of his finest). I can guarantee you that if I’m in the office on Saturday, Chess will be on at some point, much to the alarm of the security guards as I sing along. I own too many different versions of it and I’m still paying off the debt of seeing it so many times in the Eighties.
Forgive the pun, but Chess has had a truly chequered history. Following a wildly successful concept album, which spawned several hit records (I Know Him So Well, One Night in Bangkok), in its first theatrical incarnation in 1986, it had been a modest hit, but the cost of its elaborate staging meant that it was felt not to have been a success. It went to Broadway, where the epic scale of its failure, both artistically and financially, seemed to have doomed it forever. Then a more pared down and reworked version toured Australian stadiums, and this, followed by a Danish version, proved it might still work.
And now here we were with the City of London Philharmonic and Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, David Bedella, Kerry Ellis and Marti Pellow ready to bring Chess back to life, and how wonderful to have Cantabile back. Although strictly a concert, it was semi-staged, so we also had dancers, cheerleaders and the wonderful West End Chorus, who totally stole the show for me.
I’m probably going to get hate mail from Idina Menzel fans for this, but I don’t think she worked for me as Florence (nor me either, Ed). It’s not really a part that suits her voice (it would have been better for Kerry Ellis who shone as Svetlana), but it’s wonderful that the material could attract someone of her calibre. The role of Anatoly, on the other hand, really suited Josh Groban, who I’ve never much cared for before. Adam Pascal was great as Freddie and I loved hearing Pity the Child sung full out. Marti Pellow brought real charisma to the Arbiter and David Bedella was a wickedly wonderful Molotov – The Arbiter and The Soviet Machine Advances being two of the night’s standout numbers.
As Chess is such a pop-oriented score, everyone thinks it’s a doddle to sing, but it’s not – as our security guards could attest – and everyone came out with a greater appreciation for Elaine Paige, Tommy Korberg and all the others who delivered it eight times a week, week after week.
It’s hoped that the two concerts will create interest in reviving Chess in the West End – they’ve certainly proved that the material still works (especially as it’s now been slightly updated and rewritten). A DVD should be available soon, so if you didn’t manage to get along to the Albert Hall, you won’t miss out.
Our favourite game now is who could we cast (without the benefit of a reality TV show, I might add). Well here’s a start – Jersey Boys star Glenn Carter told Elaine Paige that Chess was his favourite show and he’d love to play Freddie. And I for one would LOVE to see him do it. Now where’s that credit card just in case…?