CHESS on Broadway – the reviews

The first review on this page is by the New York Times’ Frank Rich. A man who
has become synonymous with the musical CHESS’s disastrously short and huge
loss-making run on Broadway. Björn Ulvaeus has subsequently cited the show’s
failure on Broadway as “the saddest moment” in his professional career. Rich’s
savage review resulted in the show’s score not even being nominated for a Tony
Award. Because the score wasn’t a Tony nominee, let alone winner, no-one on the
production side was prepared to stump up the dollars for a Broadway Cast
Recording. Thankfully, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson were quick to offer the
cast the chance to record the Broadway score, including for the first time, the
then new song ‘Someone Else’s Story’, by paying for the recording themselves.

Frank Rich, The New York Times, 29 April 1988

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 Börn 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.

Humm, Variety, 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 long-run 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.

Robert Osborne, The Hollywood Reporter, 29 April 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.

The book is 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.

Edith Oliver, New Yorker, 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.

Stewart Klein, Fox 5 The 10 O’Clock News, 28 August 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.

Joel Siegel, WABC-TV Eyewitness 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 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 Russian’s 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.

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