From its opening chords, which make you think you've wandered into a movie theater by mistake, to its fake unhappy ending, "Chess," a musical in which people are pawns of international politics, is a show without a game plan.
It has pleasant music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA. Theoretically, the show has lyrics by Tim Rice, but they're not really lyrics - they're more like rhythmically arranged bits of information that sometimes rhyme.
The album "Chess" produced a hit song, "One Night in Bangkok," two years ago. Nowadays, songs have to be made into movies or videos or something. Since you stand to make a good deal of money enshrining a song in a show, Richard Nelson was hired to write a script.
The score dictated certain plot requirements; the growing book necessitated new songs. So the whole thing has sprawled like something written by two committees not in very close touch.
The plot about American and Soviet chess stars whose careers reflect the ideologies of their native countries is as sexy as a book about John Foster Dulles' favorite hymns. The characters are cliches, and not even appropriate ones. The American, for example, is arrogant the way our tennis stars are. (Chess wizzes tend to be weird, rather than cocky.)
Everything hinges on a Hungarian girl who fled her country in 1956. She leaves the nasty American for the forlorn Soviet; as she changes loyalty, the plot gets increasingly irritating.
Neither of the love stories is emotionally involving. So, to give the show some oomph, one of the committees must have decided to create an unhappy ending. It seems arbitrary, just another way to jerk the audience around.
Granted the synthetic nature of the material, the cast is quite heroic. As the obnoxious American, Philip Casnoff has a particularly tough job. But he makes the character surprisingly sympathetic, even in a tiresome song about his unhappy childhood.
David Carroll, as the Soviet, has better music, though he must deliver it in a Russian accent; that he does it so well is a great tribute to his talent. Interestingly, the only moment of emotional impact comes near the end, when these opponents embrace.
Judy Kuhn is enormously appealing as the Hungarian girl. Marcia Mitzman does well as the Soviet's abandoned wife (don't ask too many questions), and one of the show's best moments is a duet for the two women. Dennis Parlato is strong as smarmy American; Harry Goz is charming as a KGB man.
Visually "Chess" is drab. There is a technological fascination to Robin Wagner's constantly moving slabs, a kind of moving sculpture that gives the show a cinematic fluidity. Wagner used a similar idea for the original "Dreamgirls," but that as least had a high-tech sheen. This is dreary. The only visual relief is the tacky evocation of Bangkok nightlife for the hit song, plus a pointless "industrial" number with a lot of product logos.
The show is shrilly overamplified, as if one of the committees admits to the emptiness of most of the songs and realized they might work better if they were really loud. Trevor Nunn seems to have used a similar approach in directing the book. It seems pathetic that a distinguished British director should now devote himself to such meaningless projects.
This lingering question raised by "Chess" is why anyone imagined international politics was something to sing about?
One thing is certain. Tim Rice's "Chess" is a whole new game in New York from what it was in London. It is not so much two different productions of the same show as two different shows. Almost two different types of show.
The "Chess" which opened at the Imperial Theater last night could be called a political love story - honest, simplistic, sentimental, but, despite all its frantic efforts to the contrary, a little banal.
The original "Chess," with its high-tech video screens and a hydraulic stage, even its complex opening dance tableau, was a more ambitious attempt to symbolize life and politics as a chess game, following the example of Ninette de Valois' celebrated ballet "Checkmate."
As can happen with ambition, that earlier, more cerebral version was markedly less successful than this more modestly scaled Broadway offshoot. But success can be comparative, and whether this frantic, over-amplified musical will make up in human feeling what it has abandoned in sheer technological pizzazz, will be for Broadway audiences to decide.
The London show, like Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express," triumphantly survived very mixed notices and varied words of mouths. Whether this humanized "Chess" can withstand the same fate - if such befalls - may be less certain.
The music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus - part of the Swedish pop group Abba - proves noisy but not especially appealing or original. It could be characterized as Andrew Lloyd Webber without the tunes, which is not the best of news.
In fairness, there are some numbers that gingerly approach melody, and a couple of them, "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well," have already become well known. Yet the final impression of the score is of pretentious eclecticism caught uneasily between rock and the hard place of old-time theater music.
Yet the real danger to "Chess" comes ironically from its real merit - which is Tim Rice's original idea to produce a Broadway musical somewhat on the lines of "Evita," with a theme and story at least as substantial as an opera.
The attempt is made to show real people in serious situations, and even, in a crude fashion, to draw some kind of sloganeering political message from it all.
However, the fact that it clearly is more seriously inclined than even, say, "The King and I," invites audiences and critics to apply more stringent standards of taste and credibility to something that is, after all, still a pop entertainment and not a work of art.
For this New York staging, Rice has brought in the playwright Richard Nelson to provide a new book, restricting his own literary efforts to the complex and often cleverly limber lyrics.
Nelson, a glitteringly literate American playwright probably more popular in Britain than at home, has developed more fully the story of chess, love and power politics.
The hero and anti-hero - the two chess players locked in the spotlight of a world championship - are the unbelievably nobel Russian, Anatoly (David Carroll), and the unbelievably ugly American, Freddie (Philip Casnoff), a brat who would make John McEnroe seem like Emily Post.
Freddie's chess second is Florence (Judy Kuhn), a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian revolution (which we now witness, in passing, in a new noisy, smoky prologue), who was once Freddie's lover. Now she falls in love with Anatoly, who is inspired to defect and seek political asylum.
In an unlikely second act twist, the action moves from Bangkok to Budapest, where the chess championship continues - now with new American Anatoly pitted against old American Freddie. The very possibility, even in these days of glasnost, of a Soviet defector being permitted almost instantly to play chess in an Eastern bloc country sounds tenuous.
However - once there, the Russians put pressure on Anatoly to return to the Soviet Union. And, for reasons never quite clear to me, the KGB is helped in this effort by the CIA, who apparently wish to rack up brownie points with their Soviet counterparts.
This tortured love quartet - the Russians send Anatoly's wife, Svetlana (Marcia Mitzman), to Budapest to increase the pressure - are surprisingly convincing, and Anatoly's doubts, fears and difficulties on his defection are precisely those encountered by every defector I have ever known.
Trevor Nunn's staging is dazzling in its speed, and sense of a travelling stage pitted with acid-etched vignettes of action. For the chameleon setting Robin Wagner has devised revolving towers of the type he used in "Dreamgirls," and Nunn uses them magnificently. The stage becomes a kaleidoscope of drama and swirling movement, but the scenery is not the only outstanding performer of the evening.
Casnoff, bitter and rancid as the Yankee brat, and Carroll, truculent and skeptical as the hero of the Soviet Union, are both remarkably fine, as are the touching Miss Mitzman and veteran Harry Goz as the sinuously bluff KGB factotum.
But best of all is the terrific, full-voiced, intensely focused Miss Kuhn - remembered from her Cosette in "Les Miserables" - as the Hungarian sparrow crushed by the fall of an iron curtain. She tears at the heart, rather more effectively, indeed, than does the musical itself. But both are still definitely worth seeing, even if for the latter you need earplugs.
Anyone who associates the game of chess with quiet contemplation is in for a jolt at ''Chess,'' the new musical that does for board games what another Trevor Nunn production, ''Starlight Express,'' did for the roller derby. For over three hours, the characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music. The show is a suite of temper tantrums, all amplified to a piercing pitch that would not be out of place in a musical about one of chess's somewhat noisier fellow sports, like stock-car racing.
Many of the fights pertain to the evening's ostensible story, an extended struggle between a Soviet chess master, Anatoly (David Carroll), and an American challenger, Freddie (Philip Casnoff), for the world championship. Freddie is an ugly American, John McEnroe-style, who will throw a drink in a reporter's face or upend a chess board if he doesn't get his way. When Freddie is tired of fighting with Anatoly, he brawls with his chess second and former lover, Florence (Judy Kuhn), or with his C.I.A. keeper (Dennis Parlato), who then argues with his K.G.B. counterpart (Harry Goz). As the action moves from Bangkok to Budapest at the start of Act II, even the neutral arbiter of the chess match (Paul Harman) jumps fully into the fray. In an unintelligible but ineffably loony solo, the official starts barking indiscriminately at anyone who will listen, including one poor lady who wishes only to collect her luggage at the airport.
If contentiousness were drama, ''Chess'' would be at least as riveting as ''The Bickersons.'' That the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand - and the drab color scheme to match - can be attributed to the fact that the show's book, by the American playwright Richard Nelson, and lyrics, by Andrew Lloyd Webber's former and cleverest collaborator, Tim Rice, are about nothing except the authors' own pompous pretensions. ''Chess'' tells us over and over again that all the world is a chess game, that all the men and women are merely pawns, that everything from global conflicts to love to detente is subject to the same strategies and moves. ''They see chess as a war/playing with pawns just like Poland,'' sings Freddie of the Russians. So what else is new?
The metaphor could grab an audience only if Mr. Nelson and Mr. Rice dramatized it in specific, compelling terms. They haven't. Their tale of international intrigue, with its nefarious spies and headline-making defection, is incoherent and jerry-built, John le Carre boiled down to a sketchy paragraph. Even more ridiculous (and windier) is the parallel love story - which sends Florence, a Hungarian refugee to the United States, ricocheting arbitrarily between the American and the Soviet players as if she had no self-respect or political convictions. By the time the love triangle turns into a rectangle, with the sudden addition of Anatoly's estranged but impossibly noble wife (Marcia Mitzman), ''Chess'' starts to resemble Chinese checkers.
Rather than condescend to throwing the audience a bone of genuinely romantic or melodramatic entertainment - or even providing a tense chess game - the authors pass the time pontificating about politics in sweeping generalities reminiscent of Mr. Rice's ''Evita.'' The show's mindless point of view, carefully fashioned to avoid offending any paying customer and therefore bereft of bite, has it that the Soviet and American Governments are equally duplicitous in pursuit of nearly identical goals, no matter what the changes in Administrations or the fate of glasnost.
The sole time ''Chess'' takes a strong stand on anything, and tries (without success) to muster a sense of humor, is in an early song mocking companies that merchandise and exploit chess with cheesy products. But the musical's moral stance proves hypocritical minutes later, when, for no reasons other than to plug a catchy song (''One Night in Bangkok'') and give the production its one iota of dancing, ''Chess'' takes us on an exploitative tour of Bangkok's sleazy flesh palaces. As choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, the number looks like a hermaphroditic burlesque of the ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' ballet in ''The King and I.''
The studied ideological neutrality of the script is matched by the music - composed in a sometimes tuneful but always characterless smorgasbord of mainstream pop styles by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the Swedish rock combine Abba. Robin Wagner's set, fussily lighted by David Hersey, has even less personality. It is colorless - a presumably Kafkaesque configuration of oppressive, mobile towers in cinder-block gray. Though Mr. Wagner has given the Broadway ''Chess'' a different design than he did in London, where the production was initiated by Michael Bennett and completed by Mr. Nunn, one still finds the ghost of the Bennett-Wagner partnership on ''Dreamgirls'' in the towers at the Imperial.
For all the redesigning, rewriting and recasting that have followed the West End premiere, it's amazing how little success Mr. Nunn has had in levitating ''Chess.'' He doesn't seem to be injecting passion into a play so much as adding a branch store to an international conglomerate. His main achievements have been to add running time, to remove the glitzy video and hydraulic special effects and to tack on a prologue, replete with smoke and tattered flags, that makes the 1956 Hungarian revolution look like the Parisian barricades sequences of his far superior ''Miserables.'' His work is so mechanical here that he can't even whip up feeling in a shamelessly sentimental reunion between the heroine and a man she believes is her long-lost father - in spite of putting the man in a wheelchair and having him lead his daughter in a Hungarian lullaby.
The casting is also quixotic, with either broad or inept performances in every supporting role. The leads, all powerful singers, are much better. The most impressive acting comes from Mr. Carroll's Anatoly, who brings real fire to a generic patriotic anthem that ends Act I and who also evinces a sweetness reminiscent of the Russian created by Robin Williams in ''Moscow on the Hudson.'' Mr. Casnoff does everything humanly possible to bring shading to the spoiled, one-note American, even while shrieking a last-minute aria in which Freddie demands that we forgive his obnoxious arrogance because he comes from a broken home.
The largest role by far belongs to Ms. Kuhn. This talented but misused young actress spends almost the entire second act belting out unmotivated and often self-contradictory songs of love, defiance and moral indignation, sobbing unconvincingly through most of them. While Ms. Kuhn may acquire the magic necessary to carry a big musical some day, she needs more experience - and more help from everyone, from the authors to the costume designer - to do so. But her efforts are not entirely in vain. Watching Ms. Kuhn's brave struggles against impossible odds, we do at last find some substance to the musical's metaphorical equation of chess and war. War is hell, and, for this trapped performer and the audience, ''Chess'' sometimes comes remarkably close.