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Chess: A Musical I’ve Been Waiting For Decades to See Their Next Move.5 min read

Ramin Karimloo (center)and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The Review: Broadway Center Stage’s Chess

By Ross

In June of last year, Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar), the incredible lyric and book writer of many of my favorite musicals, announced that after a recent successful table reading, the long-awaited revival of the musical, Chess, with music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus (Mamma Mia!) would return to the Broadway stage for the first time since 1988. Way back in 1984, the musical began the game with the first move being a very successful concept album, and because of that success (the album was a Top 10 hit in the UK, West Germany and South Africa, reached #47 on the US Billboard 200, #39 in France, #35 in Australia, and was #1 on the Swedish charts for seven weeks, most likely due to ABBA’s Swedish heritage), made the strategic and daring move in 1986 to the West End. There it continued its winning streak by scoring numerous awards and three Olivier nominations including Best New Musical and nods for two of its leads. The wildly embraced musical game starred Eileen Page, Tommy Körberg, and Murray Head, and ran for over two years before, naturally making its way to New York City and the Broadway stage.
chessarttsbcb_48022332b984b336e3383e6ff3c0085e739As it made its way over here, the show was reconfigured quite dramatically. The creative team reimagined the show from beginning to end, creating a very altered musical intended specifically for its American audience, with considerable differences in both plot and music. Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard, Cats) brought in playwright Richard Nelson (James Joyce’s The Dead) in an attempt to make a more straightforward “book show” for Broadway audiences. Nunn decided also, to not bring over Paige for the role of Florence but asked Nelson to recreate the character as an American and Judy Kuhn (Fun Home) was subsequently cast (to great acclaim). After such success in England, Chess did not get the rave reviews it was hoping for or had received in London, with some saying that the new book took away a great deal of its cohesion.  Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote: “the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand” and not surprisingly, the musical only ran for two months before the producers were check mated and closed the show.
With great fanfare and theatre geek excitement (mine), it was announced in November of 2017 that the show would have a pre-Broadway tryout at the John F. Kennedy Center from February 14 to 18, 2018 by the Broadway Center Stage at the Eisenhower Theater, and I for one, knew I had to be there to see this show. It was one of those musicals from the 80’s that in my little apartment on Vaughn Road in Toronto, I would continuously listen to the cassette tape of the concept album over and over again, dreaming of the day that I would get to see this show live on stage. It never did make its way to Toronto, at least when I was around to see it, nor did I ever get the chance in London or New York. So with director Michael Mayer (West End’s Funny Girl, Broadway’s The Terms of My Surrender, 2ST’s Whorl Inside a Loop) taking control of the chess pieces with a restructured storyline and book from writer, Danny Strong (Empire,The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) in front of a scaffolding supporting conductor, Chris Fenwick and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, I would finally get my chance.
Ramin Karimloo and Raul Esparza in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Little did I know back than in my early twenties, that this current revival would star two of my most favorite male Broadway singers, face to face, battling it out, not just for the championship of this particular musical chess match, but also for my Broadway heart. Raul Esparza (Broadway’s Leap of Faith, The Homecoming), as obnoxious American chess champion, Freddie Trumper (yes, this is truly the character’s original name) has always reigned as my number one, seeing him in numerous plays and almost seeing him in Sondheim’s Company. Sadly he was out the night that I, accompanied by eleven of my good friends celebrating my birthday, showed up for Bobby’s birthday and to see Raul Esparza sing the incredible final number, ‘Being Alive’ (click here to check it out). Boy, did my heart sink when I saw the note in the Playbill that he was out for the week, replaced by a perfectly fine actor, but no Raul in my eyes. But Esparza did make it up to me, surprisingly, when he stepped in at the last minute, filling in for a worn-out Patti LuPone, at a benefit, hilariously titled Leading Ladies Singing Sondheim (or something like that). He arrived unannounced in the last few moments of the night and sang the song that I had sadly missed out on months before. And he sang it as spectacularly as I had imagined he would.
Sneaking up behind Esparza on my list of favorite male Broadway singers and performers, most definitely, is the incredibly gifted and gorgeous Ramin Karimloo (Tokyo/Osaka’s Prince of Broadway), who destroyed me in the Les Miserables revival and astounded me further in the overall lesser show, Anastasia on Broadway. But here in D.C. playing the heartthrob Russian chess master, Anatoly Sergievsky, one had to ask the question: “What could be better than this?” These two magnificent singers, battling it out, over an international chess tournament, singing their hearts out to one of my favorite scores. Who would win the highly important and internationally relevant chess game? But more importantly, who would win the battle to be my favorite Broadway leading man? (sorry Bryce Pinkham, you are wonderful and in my top ten, but not my top two…) (click here for the rest of the review)
Karen Olivo and Ensemble in Chess. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Posted on February 23, 2018
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