After "Who'd Ever Think It?", the London Chess sails back into troubled waters.
It doesn't seem rough immediately. The "Chess" instrumental goes neatly over Freddie's collapse in the match, and "Florence Quits" is a very strong dramatic moment. Freddie lashes out and says some pretty awful things about women, and we get back into the "Who'd Ever Think It?" theme that will repeat again in "The Deal." But then ...
The short piece, sometimes referred to as "A Taste of Pity," that sits after "Florence Quits" in the concept album can be a great bit of theatre, if Florence is still on stage. The blocking isn't hard to do: Florence and Freddie argue, Florence is about to storm out, Freddie stops her and sings this piece that's almost conciliatory. She softens for a moment and then Freddie suddenly sings "But the fools never learn!" It's a great bait-and-switch moment, slamming the door just when the audience wonders if they might be able to reconcile.*
In the London script, this got screwed up by placing "Pity the Child" in this spot. It requires that Florence leave at the end of "Florence Quits," and honestly it's not the right moment for it. The audience who's never seen the show wants to see where it's going between Florence and Anatoly, not spend over five minutes wallowing in Freddie's self-pity.
Fortunately, everybody in the world including Tim Rice saw this, and the 2008 revision puts the "Taste of Pity" back in its place, and "Pity the Child" in Act II where it belongs.
After that we get the defection scene. It's a very weird scene, for a number of reasons.
First: it wouldn't have happened that way. And here is one of the reasons a dramaturg is useful in a musical like this – they will do the research so you get basic factual questions right. Merano is a town that had about 33,000 people in the '80s. It's very picturesque, but there's never been a British consulate there. And if that seems like a nitpick, the reason I bring this up is that the scene as written has no drama at all; Anatoly goes into the consulate and has to sit through bureaucrats complaining. In reality, the characters would've needed to sneak Anatoly onto a train over the Alps and into Milan, where he could actually walk into a British consulate and defect. There's actual intrigue and drama in that scene, which is totally missing in the flat defection sequence from London.
Second: several eastern bloc defectors did pass through the US Embassy in Rome and one Bulgarian actually went through the British consulate in Bologna. But in the real world, no defector ever showed up at the British consulate in Milan; it would've been a fairly big deal. To only represent it by some bureaucrats grousing is almost perverse. Trevor Nunn tried to stage a big dramatic scene by using stage lights to represent car headlights in a parking garage on Broadway; it didn't work but at least he tried something. In London, there's no drama to speak of.
Third: "Embassy Lament" is easily the weakest song on the original concept album, both in music and lyrics. Musically it's too simplistic and a bit annoying, a failed attempt at a patter song. Lyrically it just doesn't manage to be as amusing or barbed as it's supposed to be. Bureaucrats just aren't funny, even ones who are comically jaded at defections from the Soviet Union.
After the "Lament," Florence comes on stage to sing "Heaven Help My Heart." This is a mistake. The audience just heard Freddie's solo (fixed in the 2008 revision). We've just hit about 70 minutes, so the people who don't have the concept album and didn't read their program are expecting this to be the end of the act (and in Sydney they would've been right). Instead it's just another solo in a crowded part of the story. It becomes forgettable.
Now, no one's ever found a place to put this song. It doesn't have any context on the concept album. It's put in the same place as the concept album on Broadway, and setting it in a church is far too on the nose. Sydney awkwardly ends the first act with it. Stockholm has Florence sing it ... well, it just has Florence sing it, no explanation. The song is lovely, but there's no material in the whole history of Chess that actually makes a logical place to put it.
That doesn't excuse London. Florence comes out to sing after "Embassy Lament" strictly because it's her turn to sing, and she sings this song now because the creators didn't have a better place for it. It's a lovely song, but here it is making Florence a bit desperate to sing about her angst in a relationship when she has spent virtually no time whatsoever with the man. "I love him too much" is not something you can sing about somebody you've just kissed the once. It makes more sense a few months or a year into a relationship.
"Anatoly and the Press" is short. Too short; the longer version on Broadway has a bit more punch. But there's a moment of dialogue where Anatoly says "Walter, you bastard! You never told me that you fixed this!" that implies a missing scene where we actually see Walter telling Anatoly something. Instead we get the same very confused version of events that Florence sees, which implies that he's really working for the CIA when he shows a card in "Embassy Lament." A better set-up for his role, such as Sydney where he talks about a TV interview with Anatoly, makes more sense and gives a bit more meat for the audience to catch on to the idea that Walter is plotting something.
The act ends with "Anthem." It's been a long time getting there, but it's a perfect act closer. Anatoly wins the audience over with sheer charisma and a song that builds slowly to a majestic finish. Its last lines summarize a rather lovely sentiment: "Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart / My land's only borders lie around my heart." Then curtain on a long act that has taken quite a bit of explanation.
We'll get into why that's a problem in the second act.
* This wasn't done in the Broadway version, where Freddie is played as menacing and Florence seems to be defending herself.