If there were any doubt that the New York theatre boasts some of the most exciting voices anywhere in the world, one need only have attended the sold-out benefit concert of Chess December 12 at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre. Especially remarkable for an evening filled with one stand-out performance after another was that three of the leads—Tony winner Lena Hall, Solea Pfeiffer, and Tony nominee Ramin Karimloo—are all currently starring on New York stages, delivering eight shows a week in, respectively, Little Shop of Horrors, Almost Famous, and Funny Girl, while rehearsing and subsequently performing this extraordinary evening to benefit the Entertainment Community Fund.
The one-night-only event began with brief comments from Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, the chairman of the newly renamed Entertainment Community Fund, who related how the organization helps all those in the industry during times of need. The actor, who was greeted with thunderous applause, also spoke about the work of the Fund’s sister organization, Broadway Cares, and gave a shout out to the evening’s producers, Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman. Broadway favorite Mitchell also encouraged everyone in attendance to visit the Entertainment Community Fund website to learn about the organization’s missions, upcoming events, and donating.
This performance of Chess, featuring a new book by Danny Strong and direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer, was presented concert-style: The principals performed at one of several microphones set up across the front of the stage, while a powerful chorus of 18—Kate Bailey, Joe Beauregard, Neal Benari, Brendon Chan, Nkrumah Gatling, Masumi Iwai, Nina Lafarga, Ross Lekites, Austin Lesch, Alicia Lundgren, Sean MacLaughlin, Robin Masella, Kaitlin Mesh, Katerina Papacostas, Julius Rubio, Emily Stillings, Stephen Tewksbury, and Christopher Vo—was situated a few feet back in front of the towering A Beautiful Noise set that housed the musicians of the orchestra.
Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham, also on Broadway in the Audra McDonald-led Ohio State Murders, served as the evening’s droll narrator, explaining the story of the Cold War musical: “I should warn you, some of this shit actually happened.” Pinkham, who drew laugh after laugh throughout the night, also scored as the Arbiter, later delivering a superb version of “The Arbiter.”
For those familiar with the original London staging of Chess or the short-lived Broadway production, the newest iteration of the Tim Rice-Benny Andersson-Björn Ulvaeus musical—about the egos and emotions that collide during an international Chess championship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.—features numerous changes to the book and order of songs, several new lyrics, and a storyline that labels Freddie Trumper, played by stage and screen star Criss, as a clinical narcissist with bipolar disorder. As Pinkham joked, “With the name Trumper, what would you expect?”
Hall was cast as Freddie’s chess second, Florence Vassey, and when she first opened her mouth and out poured that singular rock belt, everyone in attendance knew it was going to be a memorable evening. The actor, who won her Tony for playing Yitzhak in the Broadway bow of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, triumphed in all of her vocals, whether she was delivering a fiery, roof-raising “Nobody’s Side” (followed by a lengthy standing ovation) or a tender “Heaven Help My Heart” (which also featured Karimloo). What’s astonishing about Hall’s rangy voice is that her upper register remains clear as a bell, even after the from-the-guts, no-holds-barred super-high belting.
Karimloo, who possesses one of the greatest tenors ever to grace the musical theatre stage, played Russian chess champion Anatoly Sergievsky and also astounded in song after song, most thrillingly in his glorious version of “Anthem” that concluded the first half of the evening.
Following her performance in the title role of the City Center Evita and the current screen-to-stage adaptation of Almost Famous, Pfeiffer, who didn’t make her entrance until the second act, once again gave evidence that she boasts one of the richest and most powerful instruments of anyone on Broadway today. When she finished what may be the most exciting version of “Someone Else’s Story” that this writer has ever heard—the voice flows out of Pfeiffer like molten lava—narrator Pinkham stated the obvious, “Well worth the wait, I’d say.” Pfeiffer’s rendition, with an exciting key change, was also greeted by a roar of approval.
Criss, who fully embodied the narcissism of the American chess player, delivered his solo, the go-for-the-throat “Pity the Child” with a hypnotic, dramatic intensity. Despite some vocal fatigue, the Emmy winner turned the anthem into a one-act play, revealing the character’s vulnerability beneath the cocky exterior. He also had fun with the musical’s best-known tune, “One Night in Bangkok,” which also featured the chorus, many of whom shed their black outfits down to their skivvies and surrounded Criss in the sultry pop hit.
As exciting as the solo numbers were, there were also numerous group numbers that were equally stunning. When Hall and Karimloo first sang a portion of “You and I” toward the beginning of the evening, one couldn’t help but be moved by the beauty of the melody. In fact, the evening once again demonstrated that Chess features one of the great musical scores of the '80s. Just a few of the other standouts: Hall and Karimloo’s “Mountain Duet,” one of their many duets that conveyed not only a great chemistry between the two but a palpable sense of joy in singing opposite each other; a version of “The Deal,” featuring all the leads, that rocked the theatre; and an “Endgame” that was similarly powerful. And, yes, “I Know Him so Well” was everything one could have hoped with Hall and Pfeiffer’s magnificent, unique voices soaring and blending with exciting passion.
Bradley Dean and Tony nominee Sean Allan Krill were also in fine form as, respectively, Molokov and the "non-singing role of" Walter de Courcey. (Dean, Krill, Pinkham, and Karimloo all reprised roles they originally played in the limited 2018 Kennedy Center production of Chess, also directed by Mayer.)
Lyricist Rice, who was unable to attend the benefit evening, penned a letter to the company that was reprinted in the evening’s program. The Tony-winning Evita and The Lion King lyricist wrote, “[Chess] refuses to go away and after hundreds of productions great and small around the globe (including many in the United States) since it first appeared on record in 1984, maybe the time is right for a return to Broadway."
One could hardly imagine a better cast for the musical's long-awaited Broadway return.
The evening also featured movement by Lorin Latarro, lighting by Kevin Adams, sound by Steve Canyon Kennedy, scenic design by David Rockwell, costumes by Lisa Zinni, music supervision, additional arrangements, and additional orchestrations by Brian Usifer, music direction by Roberto Sinha, and arrangements and orchestrations by Anders Eljas with casting by Jim Carnahan and Jason Thinger and Lisa Lacucci as production stage manager.