Some of the most unforgettable nights of theater are those one-night-only or very-limited-run benefit performances for various organizations--e.g., the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd and the New York Theatre Workshop's Rent reunion. Another thrilling example: the concert version of the Benny Andersson-Bjorn Ulvaeus-Tim Rice rock musical Chess that was presented at the John Houseman Theatre in 1998 as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Produced and musical-directed by Neil Berg, the show had a top-drawer cast headed by Rob Evan and Brian d'Arcy James as (respectively) Anatoly and Freddie, the Russian and American chess champions whose bitter rivalry heats up even further when a woman comes between them.
Now, Evan and James are preparing for a rematch in another production of Chess in concert--this time at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, New York on August 10, 11, and 12, again under Neil Berg's musical direction. The show also stars Lauren Kennedy as Florence (the third point of the love triangle) and features Julia Murney as Svetlana, Danny Zolli as the Arbiter, and Terrence Mann as the narrator (who gets to sing "The Story of Chess"). What this means, among other things, is that James will once again be confronted with the ridiculously difficult rock aria "Pity the Child"--known in performers' circles as "Pity the Singer." Though his rendition of the number in the BC/EFA concert was generally considered a knockout, James is self-deprecating in discussing how well he handled the assignment.
"I liken that experience to the agony of defeat at the beginning of ABC's Wide World of Sports, when the skier comes down the mountain and just bites it," he says. "That's how I felt at some moments--but, at other moments, I felt pretty great. There are certain songs that stand out in the canon of musical theater as being unique for whatever reason. This one is unique because it's high. The thing that bugs me most about it is having to sing an 'oo' vowel way up there. That's cruel and unusual." How does one prepare to tackle "Pity the Child?" Says James, "You've gotta get back into the vocal gym. It's not often that I'm singing high Bs! You just try to work it into the muscle and make sure that the technique is there."
The Brian d'Arcy James/Rob Evan Chess battle is made more interesting by the fact that James once played the Evan role of Anatoly in a production of the show at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. "I think that would be a great exercise in terms of any show," he says. "If you get a chance to play the nemesis of your character, it really helps you to see that character from a different point of view. Chess is the only opportunity I've had to do that. It's fun to play Freddie because he's complicated. On one level, he's really in his element with all the attention that he has gained through his expertise. But, on another level, he feels that he's undeserving of the attention, and he sabotages himself in so many different ways."
Rob Evan also has a history with Chess. "I've done it twice before," he tells me, "both times in concert. I did it once down in Miami before Neil [Berg] and I produced the Broadway Cares benefit at the Houseman in '98. I've always felt that the show never really had its true moment here in the United States. Neil and I had a long sit-down with Gerry Schoenfeld [who produced the flop 1988 Broadway incarnation of Chess] after he saw our production. He took us into the inner sanctum of the Shuberts' office and, for about three hours, he told us exactly what happened with the demise of Chess on Broadway. Subsequently, I've become kind of an e-mail pen pal of Tim Rice, and we've also been talking about the show. Neil and I felt we should do another concert to keep the bloodline going."
Evan is full of praise for James' performance as Freddie, the ugly American: "When we did the BC/EFA concerts, he really nailed the essence of Freddie. He was this lovable, charming asshole. Brian is such a nice guy, and that's great for the part. When he sings 'Pity the Child,' your heart has to break for Freddie, even though he acts like a jerk for the whole show. Brian knows exactly how to pull that off."
Sooner or later, Evan hopes to see Chess back on Broadway in a semi-staged concert production. "My idea is the Weissler version of Chicago meets Rent," he explains. "Chess has an amazing pop-rock score. Some people think the show is dated because the Cold War is over, but it's really about the love triangle more than it is about Russia versus the US or a chess match."
While continuing to hope for the return of Chess to the Main Stem, aficionados will happily be making the pilgrimage to Nyack. "We have an amazing cast," says Evan, "and we're thrilled to be mounting the show again." For ticket information, phone 845-358-6333.
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