DIVA TALK SPECIAL: Julia and Josh Dazzle in All-Star Chess

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23 Sep 2003

Raul Esparza (l), Adam Pascal and Julia Murney.
Raul Esparza (l), Adam Pascal and Julia Murney.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

From the moment the two-part black curtain adorned with the Chess logo was pulled down to reveal the evening's stunning set (designed by Paul Weimer), the Actors' Fund of America's benefit concert of the Benny Andersson-Björn Ulvaeus-Tim Rice musical took hold of its audience with full force and didn't let go for two-and-a-half hours.

The evening — directed by Peter Flynn, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and musical directed by conductor Seth Rudetsky — actually began about five minutes earlier with a short speech from the legendary Barbara Cook, who spoke from the orchestra section of the New Amsterdam Theatre about the importance of the Actors' Fund and how much she loves the Chess score.

The evening, the Tony Award winning Music Man star said, had raised nearly $800,000 for the organization, which helps anyone in need who makes their living working in film, television, music, dance and theatre. Cook said that the Actors' Fund had helped her financially many years ago when "I couldn't pay my rent" and also added, "The caliber of talent involved tonight is nothing less than spectacular. . . Thank you so much for being here. I've looked forward to this for weeks, I'm sure you have. I can hardly wait. Chess, here it comes!"

Chess, which originated as a double LP with a cast headed by Elaine Paige, Murray Head and Tommy Körberg, has seen numerous alterations and stagings: the original London company with Paige, Head and Körberg; a brief Broadway run with Judy Kuhn, Philip Casnoff and the late David Carroll; various U.S. tours, concerts and foreign productions. The Sept. 22 concert, a conglomeration of the show's seven scripts, once again demonstrated the strength of the magnificent Andersson-Ulvaeus-Rice score and showed that, perhaps, the musical works best in a concert setting.

The stage of the New Amsterdam, home of Disney's The Lion King, was completely transformed: a black-and-white, raked chess board jutted slightly over the edge of the stage. The chess board was surrounded by a multi-tiered set that featured the full orchestra on both sides of the stage; above the orchestra were two more levels full of singers.



Raúl Esparza, as the Arbiter, began the evening, announcing the upcoming world chess championship between the Russian Grandmaster, Anatoly Sergievsky and his American opponent, Freddie Trumper. The orchestra and the wonderful 52-member choir then launched into the Rodgers-and Hammersteinesque "Merano." Adam Pascal, oozing his usual charisma, made an energetic entrance, as the score took on its rockish sound. In great voice, Pascal riffed, "What a scene, what a joy, a lovely sight, when my game is the big sensation!"

Throughout the evening, members of the chorus offered brief introductions to the scenes. The second song — "Anatoly and Molokov" — featured Anatoly (Josh Groban) and Alexander Molokov, head of the Russian delegation (Norm Lewis). Both Groban and Lewis possess two of the richest, fullest tones of any male singers around. I've long been a fan of Lewis' rounded sound, but had never heard the sensational voice of Groban, who followed their brief duet with a sensational "Where I Want to Be." Groban's baritone is so beautiful and soothing, it must be heard to be fully appreciated. And, it's hard to believe that this 22-year-old performer has no professional musical theatre experience; simply dressed in a white shirt with black jacket and pants, he commanded the stage surprisingly well.

The third scene — set in the Arbiter's chambers and surrounding rooms — began with the "Diplomats" singing, "No one can deny that these are difficult times. It's the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. . . . " Watching this scene, I realized how the now-ended Cold War between America and Russia almost seems like a quaint period, compared to the world of terrorist actions and threats that are now part of our post-9/11 lives. Raul Esparza, then took — no, seized — the stage to deliver "The Arbiter." Esparza is one of the most confident performers around and made one of the score's less exciting songs a show-stopper; the ensemble followed with "Hymn" and "Merchandisers."

A blonde Julia Murney (as Florence Vassey, the American's second and lover) — who looked striking in a black, off-the-shoulder dress — arrived on stage and joined Molokov, The Arbiter and Anatoly for the quartet "A Model of Decorum and Tranquility." The sound of the four singers' voices blending in the song's final verses was breathtaking, and a rapturous applause followed. (Chess fans may want to know that Freddy was a "nut" rather than a "fruit" in this version of "Decorum and Tranquility.") Florence and Molokov then proceeded with the argument-in-melody, "Florence and Molokov," where Florence revealed the traumas of her youth: a Hungarian, whose mother, father and homeland were taken from her as a child.

After Florence and Freddie battled in "1956 — Budapest Is Rising," Murney then launched into a sensational "Nobody's Side." Murney's voice can best be described as part silk and part steel. There is a beauty to her head tones that almost belies the power of her vibrato-filled, rangy belt. After Murney finished her final "Nobody's on nobody's siiiiiiiiiiiiiiide," the audience erupted into one of the evening's lengthiest roars of approval.

The arranged meeting between Florence and the Russian player, Anatoly, led to their beautiful "Mountain Duet." Freddie then burst in on their private moment to offer "Who'd Ever Think It?"

One of the evening's most visually stunning scenes, "Chess Game #1," featured the evening's dancers — on two opposite sides of the chess board — who enacted the first chess match between the American and Russian competitors. As the game progressed, various dancers (chess pieces), knocked each other off the board and danced off the stage until two bare-chested dancers — one on each team — made the game's final moves. As one fell to the floor, the Russian was named the game's victor and the world champion. "Florence Quits" (Florence and Freddie's second argument) and "A Taste of Pity" (featuring a stunning high note by Pascal) ended this scene.

The Civil Servants sang the comical "Embassy Lament" in the first act's penultimate scene. Act I ended with "Anatoly and the Press" and Groban's soaring "Anthem." Groban's sound filled the theatre as he sang, "How can I leave her? Where would I start? Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart. My land's only borders lie around my heeeaaarrrt!"

The second act began with Chess's most famous song, the pop hit "One Night in Bangkok," featuring Pascal and the ensemble, who danced and tried to seduce the American "who gets his kicks above the waistline." Julia Murney entered, sat on the edge of the chess board stage, and delivered a concentrated "Heaven Help My Heart," complete with vocal flourishes and a tender ending. Groban then joined Murney for another of Chess' treasures, "You and I."

The Tony-winning Sutton Foster — a last-minute replacement for pop singer Lara Fabian — made her long-awaited entrance as the Russian's beleaguered wife, Svetlana. Dressed in a fiery red dress, she and Groban offered a short reprise of "You and I" before Foster delivered a simple touching "Someone Else's Story." Foster did quite well with the song, although Alice Ripley's stunning version at the 1998 Chess concert — with its unexpected key change — has spoiled me for all other renditions.

The act's fourth scene — set in a television studio — featured "Interview," "Freddie Goes Metal," the reprise of "Florence Quits" and Pascal's "Pity the Child." The latter, a demanding song that is always a vocal challenge for its interpreters, was handled with ease by Pascal, whose raspy tenor soared on the song's final high notes.

The principal players took part in "The Deal," where an especially belty Foster proved her mettle with a brief reprise of "Where I Want to Be." The hit duet "I Know Him Well" — between Murney and Foster — followed. Though they sang it very well, I have to admit this was the one moment where I missed the voices of Chess stars past, most notably Elaine Paige and Judy Kuhn. Still, this "I Know Him Well" was met with a deserved roar of approval. A second Chess ballet — "Chess Game #2" — and "Endgame" preceded the final scene, which concluded with a spectacular reprise of "Anthem" featuring a teary-eyed Murney centerstage and Groban singing from one of the stage's tiers. The audience rose en masse for a lengthy standing ovation.

After Seth Rudetsky — the musical mastermind behind the three Actors' Fund benefit concerts — thanked those involved, he brought to the stage Chess' creators, Rice, Ulvaeus and Andersson. All in all Chess was a thrilling evening of great singing that makes one anxious for the fourth annual Actors' Fund Benefit Concert. Carrie on, Seth?. . .

(Due to various rights' issues, Chess in concert was not recorded for CD sale.)