`Evita' lyricist Tim Rice turns the cold war into a musical

The modern British musical arrived on the international scene in 1971 with ``Jesus Christ Superstar.'' In that show, two brash young newcomers, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, melded a riveting libretto with the best of rock's rhythms to create one of the most original and compelling musicals of the decade. The successful Lloyd Webber-Rice partnership lasted until 1976, ending with another ground-breaking blockbuster, ``Evita.'' Lloyd Webber has since gone on to create ``Cats'' and ``Starlight Express'' -- the former acclaimed around the world, the latter currently London's biggest moneymaker -- while the equally gifted Rice has yet to make his solo mark.

``Chess,'' which opened in May to much fanfare at London's Prince Edward Theatre, is Rice's second attempt. His first came last year with the musical ``Blondel,'' which folded after only a few months. This time, though, Rice, taking a leaf from the ``Evita'' marketing book, released the ``Chess'' album long before the show had even been cast, to see if, musically at any rate, he had a winner. He did -- which resulted in one of the biggest rushes ever in advance bookings for a London show.

The motif of ``Chess'' is odd-seeming stuff for the makings of a musical. But of course, that's a trend Rice himself helped set.

Told purely through songs, it's a sober tale about the surly machinations of East-West relations. Using the game of chess as a metaphor, the show focuses on world championship chess, and two champs in particular -- Fredrick (played by Murray Head) of the United States and Anatoly (Tommy Korberg) of the Soviet Union -- while below the boards are a couple of complicated love triangles, a bit of Freud, and a crash course in superpower politics.

The story begins at a tournament set in a remote Alpine village. Fredrick, the John McEnroe of the chess circuit, arrives with girlfriend Florence (Elaine Paige) and is promptly surrounded by rosy-cheeked villagers straight from ``The Sound of Music.'' Fredrick isn't charmed. Nor does he think much of the press entourage. Indeed, after punching a reporter, he exits, leaving Florence to explain his idiosyncratic behavior.

Finally she herself can take no more and is drawn to his arch rival. Anatoly is at first suspicious of her motives -- for good reason, since both Soviet and American agents have a close eye on him -- but is soon won over. Fredrick, meanwhile, sings of his unhappy childhood and the inner workings of a dyspeptic chess player. To complicate matters further, it becomes known that Florence is a Hungarian who fled as a child to Britain during the 1956 uprising and whose father hasn't been seen since; Fredrick, a staunch anti-Russian, reminds Florence of that fact. As he does, the stage's side panels show newsreels of Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest.

On to another tournament, this time in Bangkok. Anatoly defects. There's a lot of sniffing around by secret agents. Anatoly is expected to throw a match between himself and another Soviet. Instead, he wins, only to return suddenly to Russia and to the tearful wife and child he's left behind.

``Chess'' doesn't entirely work, not least because the plot is such a hodgepodge. It's never made clear, for instance, why Anatoly decides to re-defect or, for that matter, what went wrong between him and Florence. But the biggest problem with ``Chess,'' and the reason why it's failed to thrill many London critics, myself included, is that it earnestly tries to be something more than mere fluff and doesn't make it. In the massive pre-opening hype, Rice emphasized the show's (rather dubious) message: Whenever people get to the top of any profession, politics inevitably intrudes, and they become pawns in the larger game.

The difficulty with such a serious theme for a musical is that it's got to deliver the goods. If it's going to focus on the East-West power struggle, it shouldn't have to rely on cardboard caricatures and emotive videos. Equally, if it's going to present love as a more complex business than one would expect to find in a musical, it shouldn't undermine the plausibility of the protagonists by trivializing so much else of the story.

That said, ``Chess'' contains a couple of impressive numbers, with music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the Swedish rock group ABBA. And the lead players, particularly Elaine Paige as Florence and Swedish singer Tommy Korberg as Anatoly, have the kind of voices that send home songs special delivery. Also, thanks to the know-how of director Trevor Nunn (``Nicholas Nickleby,'' ``Cats''), the show offers some eye-catching moments.

Worth noting, too, is the American talent behind ``Chess.'' Broadway choreographer Molly Malone, along with scenic and costume designers Robin Wagner (``42nd Street'') and Theoni V. Aldredge (``La Cage Aux Folles'') lend considerable panache; additional support comes from snappy dancer Tom Jobe as the swivel-hipped tournament arbiter. Moreover, Rice has already linked up with America's biggest theatrical producers, the Shubert Organization, indicating high transatlantic hopes.

Nor are those hopes entirely misplaced. Although ``Chess'' is a mere shadow of its original artistic vision, there's enough sheer razzle-dazzle to guarantee a healthy run.

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