Sunday, June 21, 2009

CHESS in Concert live at Albert Hall

Initial verdict: for completists and fans of Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal or Josh Groban only.

I loooooove this musical. I don't necessarily love every recording of it. And there are quite a few recordings of it at this point. Still, I was thrilled as punch to see this disc (and the "Highlights from" single disc) at Target. Target! CHESS! Wow!

But, I am sad to say, this version of the musical does not thrill me. Josh Groban is great, Adam Pascal is great. But Idina seems to be channelling either Maureen from RENT (she played Mimi in the Original Broadway Cast) or Ani di Franco, who tends to use her nasal delivery as a tongue-in-cheek affect. Menzel's Florence is brash and brassy and not in a good way.

Also glaring to me are the lyrics, written by the brilliant Tim Rice, which seem to be diluted and diminished with each successive recording. Brilliant turns of phrase have been changed to be more obvious and incidental music and dialogue added to, well, I'm really not sure for what purpose other than to appeal to the some sort of musical adoring crowd who can't infer what's going on.

A few year's back the Actor's Fund of America staged a similar production with Groban and Pascal but with Julia Murney as Florence and Sutton Foster (seen more recently as Coco in Season 1 of Flight of the Conchords) as Svetlana. Maybe now that the book rights seem to have been straightened out, that version can be released. You can see footage of that production on YouTube - unfortunately, it's a fairly motley collection of rehearsal and concert footage:

As a completist (more or less), I am glad to have the 2008 version in my library (I still need the flawed and doomed Broadway version) and I will most likely seek out the DVD or at least try to record the concert on PBS.

Ultimately, the original concert album, followed by the amazing Danish version (sung in English) are my top picks for anyone who wants to really hear why so many people are oddly obsessed with this musical. I am sure there will be passionate debates about who is the best Florence or Anatoly or what the ultimate recording is/was/would be - but at least this means that CHESS has not faded into obscurity and will hopefully continue for many years ahead.