It could almost be a musical adage: Put on a production of Chess and people will come. Despite a failed Broadway production in 1988, the Tim Rice/Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus musical Chess has enjoyed a cult following since its 1984 concept recording (featuring Elaine Paige, Barbara Dickson, and Murray Head) and music videos. Revivals and concert versions, such as one at off- Broadway's Master Theatre in 1992, have continued.
A new concert version including Broadway stars such as Rob Evan, Alice Ripley, Brian d’Arcy James, Christiane Noll, and Michael Cerveris add another legend to the already legendary Chess. On May 10, the first of two (May 17) sold out Chess concerts for the benefit of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS took place at 8 PM at the John Houseman Theatre, home of Signature Theatre Company production of John Logan's Never The Sinner.
Set against the Never The Sinner backdrop on a stage strewn with cords and microphones, the minimally staged show presents the musical as songs strung together by Cerveris, the wise-cracking narrator. The singers are accompanied by a six piece band including three keyboards, a guitar, a bass guitar, and a saxophone and flute player, led by musical director Neil Berg .
Popular Chess numbers featured in the show include “The Story of Chess”, “Where I Want To Be”, “Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)”, “Nobody’s On Nobody’s Side”, “The Terrace Duet”, “Embassy Lament”, “Anthem”, “One Night In Bangkok”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, “I Know Him So Well”, “The Deal (No Deal)”, “Pity The Child”, “Endgame”, and “You and I”.
Changes from the standard format were made for the sake of evenly distributing the numbers in the show, which Noll, who sang the part of Florence, called “Florence-heavy”. Ripley as Svetlana sang both “Someone Else’s Story” and “Heaven Help My Heart”. “It’s not about one person coming out as a star,” Noll said.
Ripley agreed. “You can interchange [Svetlana and Florence’s] stories. They have a lot in common.”
The Arbiter, sung by Danny Zolli (Jesus Christ Superstar), also gave the second act opener, “One Night In Bangkok”.
The show was meant as a concert version, not an acted, character-driven show. Although James conveyed the swagger and arrogance of the American, he stressed the concert is not about creating a character, but about singing the music. “The music informs the character. . .You can let the music tell you where the character is, ” James said.
According to Zolli, the concert style allowed more freedom for the singers to explore the songs, such as a rock version of “The Story of Chess” by Cerveris, a less spoken, more sung “One Night in Bangkok” by Zolli, and a riff on the Beatle's “Hey, Jude” by James in “Pity The Child”.
“It [Chess] lends itself to putting your own vocal stamp on it,” Zolli said.
Cerveris was given the freedom to improvise his narration, “To embellish as I see fit--within reason,” he stressed.
Regardless of her added songs, Ripley would have played Svetlana out of her love of the show. She remembers being in college and first hearing the album. The style of the show and especially Paige’s singing affected her own performance so much so that while on Sunset Boulevard, Ripley told co- star Paige that her performance on Chess had broadened her own singing.
“I’d never heard anyone sing like that,” Ripley said, citing Paige’s stylistic mixture of rock and musical theatre on the 1984 recording of Chess.
Most of the singers got involved with the concert from knowing Evan, who not only sang Anatoly, but also co-produced the show. Evan had sung Anatoly in a benefit version of Chess in Miami and wanted to do it again, this time for the benefit of BC/EFA.
When he was told that BC/EFA, as producers, had too full of a season to produce another benefit, Evan decided to produce Chess himself.
“I wanted to do it myself. I would produce it because I knew what I wanted,” he said. “The response was so huge.”
In fact, Evan wished a bigger space had been chosen. But he was grateful to the Houseman who gave the theatre to them and for the intimacy that the concert version evoked.
Evan is proud of this Chess. “It’s unique. It’s our concert,” he said.
On May 17, a second show with Dave Clemmons as the American will be performed. Tickets for the second performance are also sold out.There are no plans at this time to produce a recording.
Philip Hoffman directs with musical direction by Neil Berg and choral direction by Wendy Bobbit. Also involved are Bruce Roberts (Executive Producer), Caralyn Spector (Production Supervisor), Jonathan Schulman (General Manager), and Babette Roberts (Production Stage Manager).
-- By Christine Ehren