Let me get this out of the way up front: as a musical, Chess doesn't work. It didn't work in London, it didn't work on Broadway, and it hasn't worked in any of the innumerable versions that have cropped up since. And it certainly doesn't work in the recently released concert version, a mostly tasteless affair partly redeemed by the music of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, and the presence of Josh Groban.
I pay virtually no attention to popular music, so although I was aware of Josh Groban, I had never heard any of his work. I may need to seek out some of his other stuff, because I really liked what I heard. Groban has a rich, sonorous voice and terrific stage presence. And he shows admirable restraint amid the crass production (one word: choral-ography) and histrionic cast mates surrounding him.
Leading the charge toward excess is Idina Menzel as Florence. Oh, she can scream with the best of 'em, but her style has no subtlety, and her acting skills are rudimentary at best. Close on Menzel's overwrought heels is Adam Pascal, who exhibits here the same cloying vocal catches, scoops, slurs, and growls evident in the cast recording of Rent, as well as the same cardboard acting style. Although I do have to say that there seemed to be some genuine pathos in evidence during "Pity the Child."
The appeal of Chess has always been the gorgeous, chill-inducing music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, combined with Tim Rice's often-inspired but sometimes-clunky lyrics. The stripped-down book of the concert version renders the relevance of many of the songs opaque, if not incomprehensible. But even if Chess the show doesn't work, the songs do, particularly the soaring "Anthem" and the thrilling duet "You and I," both of which feature Groban to positively stirring effect.
The concert version of Chess reverts back to the structure and song list of the concept album and the London version of the show, restoring a number of admittedly fun songs that don't belong in the show, including "Embassy Lament," and "The Merchandisers," the levity of which throws off the show's tone. And "One Night in Bangkok" remains, as always, an irrelevant cheese-fest.
But the concert also includes "Someone Else's Story," which was written for the Broadway version, to be sung by Florence. However, in the concert version the song goes to Svetlana, Anatoly's wife. This makes no sense at all. Here is a song about someone deciding whether to stay or leave, but this character is not in that position; Anatoly has already left her. This change was probably made to accommodate one Kerry Ellis, who is currently playing Elphaba in the London Wicked. Which makes sense, because Ellis here has all the vocal restraint and acting talent of Idina Menzel. Which is to say, not much.
So, there are two reasons to be interested in this concert: Josh Groban and the music. I say skip the DVD and buy the CD. Better yet, just buy the songs that have Groban on them. The folks at iTunes seem to understand this, and have priced the separate cuts accordingly: any track that features Groban costs $1.29, while the rest are 99 cents. (Heads up: All the songs are $0.99 at Amazon)
Chess has always been a show that's very close to my heart, ever since I bought the concept album in college. But I've long since given up hope that it will ever work as a show. It's probably time that the show's creators do the same.