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 November 2, 2012

"One Night in Bangkok" and Five Nights in Cincinnati

Faithful readers have come to expect that at the end of each month -- or the beginning of a new one -- I'll write a Leftovers column that has mini-reviews and little comments on what had happened in the last 30 or so days. Alas, I'll have to put it off a week, and here's the reason why.

As I write this, it's Wednesday and I'm in Cincinnati, far from the home and computer that I love, not to mention all my Leftover notes. I came here last Friday to see the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music production of Chess, directed by department chair Aubrey Berg (quite wonderfully, by the way), and to talk to the students afterward on how I felt they did. (They were splendid, in fact.) I was to leave on Monday morning, but I don't have to tell you why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, I'm still ensconced here in Ohio: a dog of a storm named Sandy.

So the only notes I have with me are the ones on the Chess that I saw. But given that this is a musical that has a great many adherents and detractors, I may as well discuss it. And I do have quite a history with it: it was the first show that I ever saw on three different continents. First, the original London production in 1986; then the original Broadway production in 1988; and then the original Australian production in 1991.

Each production was wildly different. Chess has gone through more changes than Alan Jay Lerner made with wives. And yet, I didn't like Chess any of those three times, and I don't like it now.

For one thing, I can't enjoy most of the characters. Everybody but Svetlana, the spurned wife of USSR chess grandmaster Anatoly, behaves badly in one way or another.

Let's start with Freddie Trumper, whom Broadway bookwriter Richard Nelson called "a cross between Bobby Fisher and John McEnroe." They were respectively a real-life chess champion and tennis legend in the latter half of the 20th century, but they were most famous for having egos the size of Rhode Island. (Little Rhody may not be so big a state, but it is big if we're talking about the size of egos.)

"I know I'm the best there is," Freddie proclaims. He smiles and smirks superciliously throughout this 1974 championship. When he's interviewed, he's purposely difficult, for he won't directly answer questions and looks for loopholes just to consternate the reporter. Then he sexually harasses one. As a result, I want him to lose. When he wins, I'm the one who wants to defect, for I'm so ashamed that he represents our country.

Defection is an issue in Chess, for Anatoly abandons his country for the United States. I'd like him more if he were making the move for altruistic reasons, but the motivation is Florence, the woman with whom he's fallen in love.


Musicals in the pre-Oklahoma era were famous for love-at-first-sight plots, but as time went on, efforts were made to make relationships more complicated, intriguing and fascinating. Be they as romantic as Tony and Rosabella or as veiled as Anna and the King or Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, they weren't just boingggg: one look is all it took. (It certainly doesn't with Bobby in Company.) In Chess, nothing much is established between Florence and Anatoly. It's a chemical reaction, that's all.

Florence, by the way, was not only Freddie's lover, but also his second -- meaning that she was hired to advise him on chess. So she's not only abandoning him in a romantic capacity, but also in a professional one. And that behavior is simply not professional. Even if she wanted to take up with Anatoly, couldn't the raging tide she held inside wait until the chess matches were over?

Granted, Freddie doesn't deserve a good woman. One could effectively argue that Florence abandons him because she can't stand him anymore and winds up with Anatoly on the rebound. But this isn't a story about a woman who falls in love too quickly and realizes later that she's not in love and was reaching out for someone, anyone under adverse circumstances. Indeed, that plot would be a good one for a musical. No: we are supposed to believe that Florence and Anatoly have a deep and abiding love that will last a lifetime. That would be fine if Nelson could have shown us specific reasons why they belong together. But he doesn't -- because he can't.

Too bad, because the career-vs.-love theme has often been a potent one in musicals: Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, Nine and even Gypsy, if we include mother love vs. career. The machinations in Chess compare weakly with these much better musicals.

I don't like Anatoly for deciding that he can dump his wife because he only felt something for her, as he says, "years ago" and doesn't now. Marriage vows should be made of sterner stuff. Besides, we eventually meet Svetlana, and she's hardly a harpy. She deals with her husband's infidelity in courageous fashion and maintains her dignity throughout the show. So how can we root for the adulterers?

And why doesn't Florence at least suspect that Anatoly is interested in her so that he can learn from the ins and outs of Freddie's play? That this never occurs to Florence makes her at the least naive and at the worst stupid.

What's also hard to understand is how Anatoly represents the USSR in chess after he's defected. The government agents are furious with him, and get revenge by giving the family he left behind both hardships and harm. So why do the agents allow him to play in their country's honor? And when he loses, why are they furious? They could easily put the spin on the situation by saying that Anatoly was a great chess player, but now he'd obviously been corrupted by Americans and that's why he's lost his ability.

And how does Freddie discover that Florence and Anatoly are an item? By the hoariest plot device possible: he walks in on them kissing. Have you ever noticed that in Sweeney Todd, Toby starts suspecting that something's wrong because he feels it in his bones -- and not because he walks in on Mrs. Lovett and the former Benjamin Barker? True, he eventually does "walk in at at the wrong time," but long before that he puts two and two together from seeing Mrs. Lovett with his old employer's purse. Now isn't that more interesting than Freddie's all-too-convenient sauntering in at the wrong moment?

Florence grew up in Budapest, but escaped to America when the Communists invaded in the mid-'50s. What of her parents? Her mother isn't mentioned at all. Her father seems to have been killed in an explosion after he handed her over to those who would get her out of the country. But later, we're told that he'd survived and that Florence will be reunited with him. It's a tender scene, but Nelson kills the moment by soon telling us that he wasn't her father, but was just a impostor that would help get an imprisoned American agent returned to the U.S. 

Nelson couldn't give us a semblance of a happy ending? What would it have cost? As for humor, forget it: there's not one decent bit of it in the entire show. The closest anything comes to a laugh is Freddie's noting that "the Goddamn Danube isn't even blue."

Many people I know who love the show have conceded to me these points -- but they also say they don't care because they love the music that Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus provided to Tim Rice's lyrics. Exhibit A is "One Night in Bangkok," a song that stepped out of the musical and became as much of a hit as any show song could muster in the last decades of the 20th century. It does help the show in one sense: as prostitutes approach Freddie, he tells them "I get my kicks above the waistline." So we do see that he's into self-denial in order to win what is called "The Match of the Century" (although there were 26 years to go).

No question, too, that "Someone Else's Story" -- a song that was written after the 1984 concept album -- is one of the most glorious ballads we've had in recent decades. Not far behind is "Heaven Help My Heart" and "I Know Him So Well." Florence gets all of the first two, and shares the last-named with Svetlana. They're all worth getting the out-of-print Broadway cast album, especially with Judy Kuhn coming through loud and clear.

But why must so many songs end with consonants, making for final notes that play havoc with the performers' voices. That extends right down to the last note in the show, which has Florence sing "hearttttttttttttttttt" and hold the word for measure after measure. Even if every song ended with an a, e, i, o, u or y, it would still be a murderously difficult show to sing. Berg purposely double-cast his Freddie, Florence and Anatoly because he didn't want to overtax them. Those who played the roles on Broadway must have been disappointed in a 68-performance run, but Kuhn must have been glad that she no longer had to hit that E, while David Carroll was just as grateful that that high C was behind him. Bet that Philip Casnoff didn't miss that G#, either.

Funny; one of the themes of Chess is the long-held belief that "Nice guys finish last." Indeed, of the two, Anatoly is indeed the nicer -- and the loser. And yet, Chess on Broadway proved that nice shows don't necessarily finish last, but a show this dour does.

         — Peter Filichia


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