Many critics panned the show, most notably Frank Rich of The New York Times, who wrote that "the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand" and described it as "a suite of temper tantrums, the characters ... yell at one another to rock music". Howard Kissel of New York Daily News complained that "the show is shrilly overamplified" and "neither of the love stories is emotionally involving," while Newsweek magazine called the show a "Broadway's monster" and opined that "Chess" assaults the audience with a relentless barrage of scenes and numbers that are muscle-bound with self-importance".
A few reviewers, however, praised it very highly. William A. Henry III wrote an exceptionally sympathetic review in Time: "Clear narrative drive, Nunn's cinematic staging, three superb leading performances by actors willing to be complex and unlikeable and one of the best rock scores ever produced in the theater. This is an angry, difficult, demanding and rewarding show, one that pushes the boundaries of the form" (Time, May 9, 1988). His sentiments were echoed by William K. Gale in Providence Journal: "A show with a solid, even wonderfully old-fashioned story that still has a bitter-sweet, rough-edged view of the world ... exciting, dynamic theater ... a match of wit and passion."
Richard Christiansen of Chicago Tribune suggested that "Chess falters despite new strategy," yet concluded his review: "Audiences forgive a lot of failings when they find a show that touches them with its music, and Chess, clumsy and overblown as it sometimes is in its three hours-plus running time, gives them that heart". Welton Jones wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune that Chess "has one of the richest, most exciting scores heard on Broadway in years ... Sadly, the music has been encumbered with an overwritten book and an uninspired staging ... Truly, this is a score to be treasured, held ransom by a questionable book and production".
All critics agreed, though, on the three leading performances by Judy Kuhn, David Carroll and Philip Casnoff. They were showered with praise — "splendid and gallant" (Newsweek), "powerful singers" (The New York Times), "remarkably fine" (New York Post) — especially Kuhn, whose performance Variety called a "show's chief pleasure".
Benny Andersson commented on the negative Broadway reviews: "I really don't know why they don't like it ... I do know that most of the audiences so far stand up and cheer for everyone at the end. They appear to get emotionally involved with the show, and they really like it" (Variety, May 4, 1988).
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