Musical Soundtrack & DVD

Chess in Concert

Story & Lyrics By: Tim Rice

Music By: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus

Produced By: Reprise Records

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

            I’ve been a fan of Josh Groban since first hearing the song Believe on the Polar Express Soundtrack.  I fell in love with Idina Menzel’s voice since purchasing the Wicked Soundtrack.  So, imagine my happiness when I received the Chess in Concert CD/DVD combo featuring both artists in a musical with story and lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of the singing sensation know as ABBA.  I couldn’t wait to check this one out.

            Chess in Concert takes place in 1979.  The Soviet Union and the United States are in the midst of the Cold War.  In Merano, Italy, an epic match is scheduled to take place between the reigning chess champion, an American named Frederick Trumpeter and Anatoly Sorgievsky, a challenger from the Soviet Union.  The match is almost immediately thrown into a political light, reflecting the times - the United States vs. the Soviet Union or East vs. West.

            Each side has its own agenda.  Florence Vassy is Frederick’s second and longtime lover.  Hungarian-born, she was forced to leave her native country at the age of five when Budapest was taken by the Soviet Union.  She has no love for the political dealings of the Soviet Union.  Alexander Molokov is the leader of Anatoly’s delegation and a loyal statesman…so loyal that he is willing to do anything to ensure the Soviet Union’s victory in this match.  Walter de Courcy is Frederick Trumpeter’s commercial agent with an agenda all his own - how to become rich and famous using everyone involved.

            As the musical moves forward, Florence, having grown tired of Trumpeter’s constant verbal abuse, finds herself attracted to Sorgievsky.  Their burgeoning love for one another becomes complicated not only by her allegiance to Trumpeter, but by Sorgievsky’s familial and political ties.  The enmity between Trumpeter and Sorgievsky heats up throughout the match and finally comes to a head in Bangkok where newly defected Chess Champion Sorgievsky must face a new challenger to his title.

            Having grown up during the time period of this musical, I can fully appreciate the atmosphere that was present between the two super countries during the Cold War.  There was an air of anger and animosity between the two countries that pervaded even sports competitions at that time.  Defections during this time were also a common event, which led to the belief by Americans that our way of life was truly far more enjoyable than that of the Soviet Union.  This lifted the spirit of Americans, but also tended to make them sanctimonious when dealing with delegations from the Soviet Union.  Political tensions were on the rise and we were always worried which side was going to be the one to push the nuclear button.  The pressures felt by both sides of this conflict were phenomenal and Chess in Concert reflects this atmosphere perfectly. 

            The version of Chess in Concert I received for review took place in the Royal Albert Hall in London, England.  It stars Josh Groban as Anatoly Sorgievsky, a man torn between his love for his country, his dreams and ambitions and the forbidden love of a woman; Adam Pascal as Frederick Trumpeter, an American for whom chess has become an obsession as well as a method of survival; Idina Menzel as Florence Vassy, an intelligent woman torn between two men and tiring of the games she is forced to take part in to achieve her goals; David Bedella as Alexander Molokov, a loyal member of the Soviet Union who will stop at nothing to ensure his country’s success; Clarke Peters as Walter de Courcy, friend to all as long as it benefits him; and Marti Pellow as The Arbiter, President of The World Chess Federation and staunch protector of the game’s integrity.  The Arbiter also happens to be the narrator of this musical, offering the audience his insight into the ways that life can exhibit the same characteristics as a game of chess.

            Josh Groban’s vocals are strong as ever in Chess in Concert and his performance was very good despite the fact that he is primarily a singer and not an actor.  Idina Menzel’s voice is amazing and I would enjoy her even if she was singing an excerpt from an encyclopedia.  The strength of her voice and its beauty stands out on the album despite the fact that it seemed like she didn’t know exactly what to do with her hands during a majority of the performance at the Royal Albert Hall.  Adam Pascal was the perfect choice to offset the voices of Groban and Menzel.  While their voices sound polished and classically trained, Pascal’s performance is raw and energetic with a hint of rock and roll brashness that perfectly reflects the personality of the character he portrays.  David Bedella drips with sleeze as the underhanded Molokov.  Clarke Peters is rather forgettable as de Courcy, but Marti Pellow is amazingly sexy, both in look and in voice, as the no-nonsense Arbiter.  Kerry Ellis makes an appearance as Sergievsky’s wife and her duet with Idina Menzel is absolutely beautiful.

            I listened to the Chess in Concert album before watching the performance on DVD.  I enjoyed the songs so much that I found myself singing along once I had the chance to view the performance.  The storyline of Chess is intriguing and the characters are enjoyable and easy to relate to.  One finds themselves vested in the characters’ outcomes and I for one felt a kinship with Florence’s character, rooting for her success throughout the entire musical.           

            Fans of musicals will enjoy Chess in Concert for its rich story, strong musical score, enjoyable lyrics and charismatic characters.  The two-CD album is simply terrific - the musical composition performed beautifully by The City of London Philharmonic as conducted by David Firman.  The vocals are outstanding thanks to the lead performers and the vocalizations of The West End Chorus.  The performance itself as viewed on the DVD is incredibly captivating what with the outstanding choreographed numbers performed by the main cast and The London Studio Centre Dancers and the pyrotechnics, animation and projections that accompanied each number.

            The booklet that accompanies the CD/DVD combo of Chess in Concert includes photos of the Royal Albert Hall performance as well as an introduction by Tim Rice and a synopsis of the musical, also by Tim Rice.  The packaging of this CD/DVD set unfolds like a booklet and features photos of chess pieces that become visible as you unfold the set.

            All in all, Chess in Concert is an amazing musical and enjoyable in either CD or DVD format.  Having gotten my hands on a limited edition CD/DVD, I was able to experience the best of both worlds and highly recommend that fans of musicals or of the performers themselves check out Chess in Concert in both formats as well.  You won’t be disappointed!


For more Idina Menzel and Josh Groban, check out these articles:

Wicked: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Soundtage Presents: Josh Groban: An Evening in New York City

Rent: No Day But Today

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