Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review - Chess in Concert

OK, so this isn't so much a review as a commentary. While watching the performance tonight, I was VERY disoriented. As I mentioned, Lynette and I went to see this show ~10 years ago. I also have the Broadway Cast Recording and listen to it frequently. However, as I watched tonight, I was literally watching a show entirely different from the one I knew.

Reading the Wikipedia page on the musical, I see where the difference lies.

It seems the show debuted in London in 1986 and met with mixed success. When it came over to America in 1988, "the creative team decided that the show had to be reimagined from the top down."

That reimagined version is the one I'm familiar with and the original London version is the one portrayed in tonight's concert. Having "seen" both of them now, I must say I much prefer the Broadway version. It's sometimes said that familiarity breeds contempt, but in this case I have more approval for the version I'm familiar with. Part of that affection may be due to the familiarity, but I think that a large part of it has to do with the fact that the Broadway/reimagined version of the show just felt more believable and more engaging.

The London version shown in tonight's concert gives us Act I with a chess tournament between an American (Freddie) and a Russian (Anatoly) chess master. Freddie is the reigning champion defending his title. At the end of Act I, he loses his title, loses his trainer/partner (Florence) and retires from chess altogether to go be a chess commentator for 'global television' (?). Act II gives us Anatoly (now defected to England and with Florence as his trainer/partner and now lover) preparing for a chess tournament against Russia's new champion. Freddie is there in a background role as the commentator but also trying to win back Florence and get back at Anatoly. While there is some tension throughout and some redemption near the end, I really missed the tension created in the Broadway version of the show (which I'll outline in a moment). The London version gives us a nice love triangle (becomes a love square once Anatoly's wife shows up), but the Broadway version had that as well. The London version amplifies the East-West relations after Anatoly defects, but the Broadway version does that as well. Basically, the Broadway version maintained the main conflict points of the plot, but changed them to make them more realistic and also added a bit of tension that keeps the audience engaged.

The Broadway version encompasses a single chess between Anatoly and Freddie. By the end of Act I, Florence has left Freddie for Anatoly and Anatoly has defected. But Freddie and Anatoly still have unfinished business because the tournament is not over. They still have very real reasons to be at each others' throats both over Florence and in the world of Chess. The London version loses a lot of tension by removing Freddie as the opponent and instead introducing Russia's follow-up challenger...a character we never get close to and never really care about.

By keeping Freddie in the game, the audience is VERY engaged in the final scenes of the play. We've gotten to know both Freddie and Anatoly and have deep sympathies for each of them. Freddie is brash and arrogant, so it's likely a part of us will want to side with Anatoly instead. And yet, many political motivations are given for the audience to hope Anatoly loses (the same motivations are provided in the London version, but in that version, we really don't care about Anatoly's opponent, so it's a different choice...perhaps it's a harder choice...we don't want Viigand to win because we don't know him...and yet, Anatoly's reason for winning hardly seems like a trade off when dealing with the wife of his family and of Florence's father).

Overall, I felt like the performances tonight were good. Idina, Adam, Josh, and Kerri all did a great job. It's hard to judge them on acting and passion when it was just a concert rather than an actual performance of the play, but it felt a little lacking and what acting they did try felt a bit out of place.

It was an enjoyable show with some great music...but the lyrics and flow was changed from what I expected and so it wasn't nearly as powerful or enjoyable as I had hoped. I hope that if the show does tour the U.S., that it tours using the American rather than London book. This London version is just too convoluted, lacks a clear direction, and is filled with lyrics that feel contrived and tacked on rather than natural and engaging.

If you're a die-hard fan of the Broadway Chess, I'd say steer clear. If you are a huge musical fan, check it out, but don't expect greatness. I can only half-heatedly recommend this, and even then, only under pressure.

1.5 stars

1 comment:

Okie said...

Thanks for the comment Brian (see previous Chess post for his comment)

Thanks for the comment Brian.

After sleeping on my initial reaction, I think my main complaint was that it wasn't the plot/songs I already loved.

However, I definitely agree with you that the music was amazing. There are numerous times when the songs stretch the singers to their limits, and the performances last night were definitely incredible.

I did record it and will certainly enjoy watching many of the key numbers again and again.