I've been familiar with the concept recording of Chess since it was released in the mid 1980's (1986 IIRC), but was somewhat disappointed with the production at the Marriott Lincolnsihre Theater in in 1990 or 1991 -- although it was because of attending that show that I ended up with season tickets for several years afterwords. I saw a couple of problems with that adaption. First, instead of making the story more clear than in the concept recording -- which gets a bit hard to follow in the second act without the synopsis -- it remained just a muddled. Further, in trying to keep the story contemporary in a time when the setting was changing on a day to day basis (if you aren't familiar, the story of Chess it is set against the Cold War) they made a bunch of unnecessary changes.
On the other hand, this concert recording was much better. First, they did the sensible thing and set the story in a specific time -- 1979 and 1980. They also restored the original story of it being 2 games over 2 years (the Marriott version, and possibly the earlier failed Broadway version, tried to make it over one game).
I also found the casting very good. Obviously, at this point Elaine Paige and Murry Head are probably too old to play characters in their late 20s and early 30s. Idina Menzel did a very good job of Florance -- and proved she could really belt (not that her work, at least on the cast recording, in Wicked also showed that pretty well). Adam Pascal was very good as The American (Freddie) -- his vocals work perfectly with the edgier "Rock" feel of many of his songs. Josh Groban did a very good job as The Russian (Anatoly??) -- his acting was very solid for someone better known as a singer than an actor, and his voice was perfect. The only complaint I could have about the casting is that the baby faced Groban looked like the youngest of the three leads, and I think that The Russian is the oldest of the 3 characters. (Only Florance has a specific age -- it is mentioned that she was 5 in 1956, so she would be 28 in 1979 if my math is working)
The casting for the other key roles was also pretty good as well. The actor playing Molenkov(??) -- The Russians Second/KGB Handler -- came across as very Russian, even though he looks like he is of Indian or Middle Eastern decent. The Arbiter was also very good, although I'm trying to reconcile Tim Rice's introduction of the actor as "The Pride of Scotland" with his consistent American accent. The role of Setvlyana -- The Russian's Wife -- was pretty good, but she isn't on stage a whole lot to tell.
The role of Walter, which was added at some point after the Concept Recording, fills a big hole -- even if by the end you aren't sure who is really paying his salary: he seems to be a corespondent for Global Television, but also seems to be Molenkov's American counterpart.
I had a couple of problems with the production. As is typical of film recordings of stage presentations, the video director wasn't sure where to focus during some of the scenes staged to be seen from the audience. The biggest example was the Chess ballets in the first act. In both cases, the film cut between close ups of the dancers, and the chess action upstage. Clearly the stage director had used a very broad ballet to deal with the low detail action of the chess games upstage, but on video it was a distracting and limited the ability to see the ballet at all.
There was also one mix problem. During the second act song "Deal/No Deal," there is a key section where Molenkov is singing in tight harmony with The American making a dramatic point, but the mix at least for recording forgot to pull up his microphone so only from the shot -- mostly over the shoulder of The American -- could you see that he was signing.
The other two problems were that PBS, or perhaps just KPBS in San Diego, chose to censor a few bad words (words I'm pretty sure I've heard on PBS on other occasions) that while not completely necessary are completely in character) and seemed to be airing an odd print -- it was a 16x9 print cut to 4x3, which wasn't a problem for the performance since it was shot for either, but kept me from reading most of the credits since they were cut in half.
I'm very glad I caught this -- I only stumbled across it by accident on Wednesday and had Tivo record the Thursday Late Night/Friday Morning rebroadcast. Of course I'm back to doing what I did 18 or so years ago with trying to figure out how I'd stage this as a regular performance (which is odd when you consider I've never been a theatrical director)