Livia Genise is so committed to staging "Chess," she left her job as artistic director of Camelot Theatre to stage the complex production.
That behind-the-scenes conflict is fitting for a musical about chess and romance in the historical context of superpower rivalry between Russia and America.
"The title, 'Chess,' is really a metaphor for the games superpowers play with people and with other countries," Genise says. "They are all pawns in the larger game of world domination."
Ashland Contemporary Theatre, in association with Livia Genise Productions, will present the rock opera at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland.
Tickets are $15 and are available online at ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org. Those who purchase reserved seats online will receive seats up front. Other tickets are available at Paddington Station, 125 E. Main St., Ashland, and Grocery Outlet, 35 E. Stewart Ave., Medford. Call 541-646-2971 for information.
With music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (ABBA) and lyrics by Tim Rice, the drama is a politically driven, Cold War-era story about a chess tournament between an American and a Soviet grand master and the woman who comes between them. Look for a rock score that includes "One Night in Bangkok," "Someone Else's Story," "Pity the Child" and "Heaven Help My Heart."
Genise directs, and the show stars Alex Boyles as Russian chess player Anatoly, Heley Forsyth as Anatoly's love interest Florence, David King-Gabriel as ugly American and chess player Freddy Trumper, and Rebecca K. Campbell as Svetlana, Anatoly's estranged wife.
Other players include Heiland Hoff, Bob Jackson Miner and Ian Wessler. Buzz London provides narration.
Genise recalls listening to a cassette tape of "Chess" back in the '80s. She says the story and music appealed to her.
Rice, lyricist for musical mega-hits such as "Jesus Christ Superstar," found that his frequent collaborator — composer Andrew Lloyd Webber — was unavailable to work on "Chess." So Rice teamed with Ulvaeus and Andersson of the Swedish pop group ABBA.
"The music especially touched me," Genise says. "When I was at Camelot, I tried to get my audience ready for rock musicals. We staged 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'Evita.' I thought the audience was ready for a complex musical like 'Chess.' "
Camelot Theatre's board of directors, however, feared "Chess" wouldn't draw crowds because of its mixed track record. Multiple versions of the musical have been staged around the world, sometimes filling Broadway houses but sometimes experiencing short runs.
Genise had cast many of the performers for Camelot's version of "Chess," and musical director Karl Iverson had invested hours in its preparation, but the board canceled the musical. Genise resigned and has since launched Livia Genise Productions.
She is staging "Chess" in a concert version, meaning audiences won't get a set. About half of the performance is spoken, with the other half made up of singing.
Genise says her version is much more than a play reading, with actors rehearsing six days a week in preparation for opening night.
Many of the songs will be familiar to audience members — although they may not know the songs' association with "Chess."
The songs help tell the story of an earnest Russian chess player, a loutish American player and his Hungarian American female assistant, who arrives for an international chess match with the American but falls for the Russian.
From Bangkok to Budapest, players, lovers, politicians and spies manipulate and are manipulated to the pulse of a monumental rock score, according to Genise.
"It couldn't be more timely," she says. "Who will win? Will the people get to do what they want for themselves, or will their countries take that away?"
At Camelot, Boyles played Georges in "La Cage Aux Folles" and Oscar in "Sweet Charity." King-Gabriel also starred in "La Cage Aux Folles," and he played Judas Iscariot in "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Genise says the actors bring powerful singing voices to the production.
"You're going to want to dance in your seat," she says.