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American version of musical `Chess' sacrifices lighter pieces

Chess Musical with music by Benny Andersson and Bj"orn Ulvaeus. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Richard Nelson. Based on an idea by Mr. Rice. Directed by Trevor Nunn. East is meeting West on both sides of West 45th Street in these waning days of the Broadway season. At the Booth Theatre, Lee Blessing's witty conversation piece ``A Walk in the Woods'' mingles nuclear polemics with the personal equation. At the Imperial, the newly arrived British hit ``Chess'' employs that ancient game as a metaphor for superpower politics, competitive gamesmanship, and romantic rivalries.

``Chess'' combines the elements of grandiose pop-rock opera in a tradition reaching back to ``Jesus Christ Superstar'' with ingredients of the traditional Broadway book musical. In this case the collaborators are veteran lyricist Tim Rice, Swedish composers Benny Andersson and Bj"orn Ulvaeus of the rock group ABBA, and librettist Richard Nelson. Trevor Nunn (``Cats,'' ``Les Mis'erables'') staged the elaborate, very loud three-hour spectacular.

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The central figure of ``Chess'' is Hungarian-born Florence Vassey (Judy Kuhn). Florence was separated from her father (Neal Ben-Ari) at the time of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, but not before he had sung her ``The Song of Chess.'' Taken to the United States as a child, Florence has grown up to be the second for Freddie (Philip Casnoff), the enfant terrible of American chess now competing in Bangkok with Anatoly (David Carroll), the Soviet champion.

The match breaks up when Freddie accuses Anatoly of cheating. Peacemaker Florence finds herself falling in love with the Russian; his ultimate defection bogs down in a nasty game of blackmail, retaliation, and general intrigue involving his wife, Svetlana (Marcia Mitzman), and Florence's supposed father. As she sings bitterly at one point, ``Nobody's on Nobody's Side.'' In the end, heartbroken Florence and Anatoly conclude sadly, ``My land's only borders/ Lie around my heart.'' Mr. Rice has made clear that ``Chess'' on Broadway differs radically from the West End original. The impression gained from the excellent RCA recording of the London cast is that the clever lyricist and his composers have rigorously excised the occasional lightly comic numbers that supplied variety and relieved the pervading melodrama of their work.

The sardonic ``Merchandising Song,'' in which Freddie's predatory agent Walter (Dennis Parlato) and his fellow hucksters extol the commercial possibilities of the game, is delivered in such stentorian fashion that its satirical commentary is virtually annihilated. The hard-rock ditty ``One Night in Bangkok,'' which became an independent hit, has inspired Mr. Nunn and dance stager Lynne Taylor-Corbett to arrange a gaudily illustrated tourist excursion into the alleys of sin and seduction.

``Chess'' does offer some affecting numbers, particularly in the duets joining Florence and Anatoly, Florence and Svetlana, and in one case a trio involving all three. The excellent singing actors seize the opportunities to emerge from the score's generally noisy context. For the most part, the evening proves wearing rather than moving. The highlight set piece of the second act is ``Pity the Child,'' belted out by Mr. Casnoff as furious Freddie explains how a cruelly neglected child became father to the wantonly immature man.

The show is in the now familiar tradition of the British musical extravaganza. Set designer Robin Wagner's monumental silvery cubes, rectangles, and triangles (lighted by David Hersey) rearrange themselves constantly on what must be some of Broadway's busiest revolving stages. Theoni V. Aldridge's occasionally symbolic costumes suit all occasions. Paul Bogaev drives the pit orchestra, in which synthesizers and percussion frequently predominate. The good cast includes Harry Goz as Molokov, the Soviet man in the middle, and Paul Harman as the strident Arbiter.

You don't have to understand chess to comprehend ``Chess.'' For aficionados, Mr. Wagner has provided projections to match the moves being made on the boards below by Freddie and Anatoly. The tensions of the matches are expressed by the score. In the end it is, as it should be, the often complex lyrics and the matching music that give ``Chess'' its principal appeal - even though the dinning overamplification may well spoil that appeal for many playgoers.

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