This summer a bevy of new CDs that are of interest to theater lovers have hit stores and iTunes. What's on tap is a mixture of familiar material and material that hasn't been heard in several decades -- and there are even songs on this diverse group of discs that have gone unrecorded until now.
The gala 2008 Royal Albert Hall concert of Chess that starred Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel and Josh Groban has gotten a truly deluxe treatment by Reprise Records. The company has released a two-disc set, a single "highlights" disc, and a double CD set that comes bundled with the DVD of the concert, which was seen on PBS earlier this year. While this new edition of the musical from Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus will never replace earlier recordings of the musical, the sheer star-power of the three leads, the presence of a 50-piece orchestra, and a 100-voice chorus certainly do make it a worthy addition to the CD rack.
Of the three leads, Pascal gives the most satisfying performance, both vocally and emotionally. He infuses the American's songs -- particularly his character's big number "Pity the Child" -- with the right blend of bitter irony, arrogance and emotional neediness. Unfortunately, Menzel, who certainly has the vocal power to deliver the rock material in Chess, fails to bring the necessary qualities of sophistication and vulnerability to the role of Florence, the American's second, and songs like "Nobody's Side" and "I Know Him So Well," end up sounding unnecessarily shrill. Groban brings a clarion baritone to the role of the Russian chess player, but there is a certain mannered quality to his work, particularly in the first act closer, "Anthem."
The three leads' work is supported by marvelous turns from former Wicked star Kerry Ellis, who uses her vocal power to moving effect as Svetlana, the Russian's wife, and Marti Pellow who makes for a vocally searing Arbiter of the games. For those Chess fans who continue to hope that the show might prove workable on stage, it's important to note that this version features not only tweaked lyrics but also some significant book revisions and song reassignments (Ellis, for instance sings "Someone Else's Story" -- a song written for Florence for the Broadway production). Chances are these changes will inspire as much debate among Chess aficionados as the lead performances.