The award-winning TADA Theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska, will open Chess The Rock Opera on February 14th. The production, with music by the creators of ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), is seldom produced because of the sheer size and demands of the production. Appearing Locally was able to chat with its director, Robert D. Rook and one of its cast members, professional actor, Con O’Shea-Creal whose Broadway credits include Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and Side Show. He has also toured nationally in productions of Something Rotten and Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins as Bert.
(Pictured actor Con O’Shea-Creal and director Robert D. Rook)
AL: For those who don’t know the show, what’s the musical Chess about?
ROOK: The story is as poignant now as when it was first written. At the surface it’s about a chess battle between Russia and the United States and some scheming that goes on during that series of tournaments. With both countries in the news right now people may think this show was written today. That’s the great thing about art; it shines a light on reality sometimes. It’s really a deeper story of love and intrigue, in which the characters attempt to manipulate one another for their own purposes and others get caught up in their actions. You see the players, lovers, politicians and spies become pawns of the game itself and in their own lives.
AL: Is that why you wanted to do the show now?
ROOK: I really wanted to do it because my last name is part of a chess set! Just kidding. I wanted to do it because it’s relevant and quite frankly because it’s a show that deserves to be seen. With the demands of the music, not many theatres produce it. I’ve always tried to bring shows to Lincoln while I’ve lived here that may otherwise not be done. I started with Sondheim’s Assassins years ago and here we are now with Chess.
AL: Was this show hard to get the rights to?
ROOK: In a way. The licensing agents kept pitching me the American version, but that script was not the one that I wanted, it has storyline flaws. We got the latest version done in the UK and it’s much tighter. In fact, the creators have even allowed us more freedom with this show than usual by letting us add new arrangements and adjusting dialogue. That is very rare in theatre. Usually you are to do the work “as is”.
AL: Did you change anything else?
ROOK: Well, as a director you always put your own spin on a show. I am staging Chess using massive projections and animations for example. Over 150 images will accompany the show. As far as characters, believe it or not, one is named Freddie Trumper. That has always been the character’s name and I realize some people might think I may have changed it to modernize the show, but again, it’s art imitating life. We all kind of chuckled about that.
AL: You mentioned all the images, were there any other demands to do this show?
ROOK: Every show has its own set of demands but this one is a beast in several ways. One of which is the amazing orchestration. You can’t do a rock opera with just a piano so we had to figure out a way we could use more instruments in our space. We created an orchestra pit and put in a new wireless sound system. It’s been a sizable investment but one that TADA has wanted to make for a while, and this was the right time. I think the last time TADA used body mics was when we did Beauty and the Beast out at Pinewood Bowl or The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on the Lied main stage.
AL: The show is credited as a Rock Opera, explain that.
ROOK: Well, most of the show is sung. There is little spoken dialogue, like Jesus Christ Superstar or Les Misérables for example. It really takes great singers and stamina to do a show like this.
AL: Speaking of singers, how did you go about casting it?
ROOK: I take time to cast any show I direct. Hal Prince says that 80% of success in theatre is the right casting. We had several rounds of auditions in Lincoln and in Omaha to find actors who could sing this music. Theatre also takes a lot of time and dedication, so you must be sensitive to time management. I cast people whom I trust, and they trust me. Actors can be great on stage but how they approach the rehearsal process is just as important. We work hard at TADA and still have fun during rehearsals. Good things come from a process like that. This cast has been sensational to work with and I know our patrons will be thrilled with what they’ll see when the show opens.
AL: You cast Con, a professional actor who has toured and been on Broadway. How did that happen?
ROOK: I first directed Con in State Fair at Pinewood Bowl when he was 14 years old. He was an amazing young man and a real positive person. He has gone on to do many great things in theatre and is still one of the kindest, giving actors I have ever directed. We have kept in touch on Facebook and he told me he was in Lincoln for a bit. We set up an audition and he was a grand fit for the lead in this show.
AL: How has it been to work with him after all this time?
ROOK: Sensational. He is still the kind and talented person he was when I first met him. I forget sometimes that I have directed for 30 years and that the “kids” I have directed during that time now have children of their own. Con is now a father and has many more shows to his credit. I am very proud of the people that I have had the pleasure of directing over the years. I will always help them any way I can. It’s wonderful that TADA can be a place that they want to come back to and do shows in Lincoln when the opportunity arises.
AL: Did you have Con in mind when you first thought about doing the show?
ROOK: Honestly, no. I really was not sure who we were going to cast. When you do a show that’s demanding like Sweeney Todd, you make sure you have a Sweeney in mind. In this case, we rolled the dice and won all the way around. Everyone in the show are caliber vocalists and actors. Like actor John Schnoor, who is playing Freddie. He has a great voice to sing a show like this. He’s the perfect example of making an audition count.
AL: How so?
ROOK: John first auditioned for me for Into The Woods. He had a great audition, but I decided to go in another direction. However, I remembered him from that audition when it came time to cast Chess. I echo what professional actor/director Robert Westenberg told actors during a master class here at TADA and that is to make each audition count and to be memorable. You may not get a role in the show you are reading for but if they remember you, you will get cast down the road. That has happened several times in my years as a director.
AL: Is this John’s first role for TADA?
ROOK: Yes. He has done a great deal of performing, including singing at Carnegie Hall. We have a great variety of singers in this show including veteran community actors, leads from Opera Omaha, recent UNL theatre grads, a current NWU student and talented TADA alumni like Megan Smith. She is a power-house vocalist and perhaps one of the only actresses around who could sing the female lead role of Florence in this show. All the cast is dynamite and a real professional bunch.
AL: Con is also the choreographer for the show, correct?
ROOK: Yes. He is an amazing dancer and choreographer. Chess does not have a lot of dance in the show, but I had him oversee a number in the first act and the song “One Night In Bangkok”.
AL: You have done a lot of theatre. When did you first start?
CON: I first began tap dancing at the age of seven. It wasn’t until I went to New York City when I was fifteen and saw the Broadway revival of 42nd Street that I realized professional theatre was something I could do.
AL: As a professional actor, what are some of the roles and shows you have done?
CON: Most notably I played the Chimney Sweep, Bert, in the National Tour of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins. Most recently I played Will Parker in a production of Oklahoma! at Stages St. Louis. Prior to that, I was on the road with the first national tour of Something Rotten and in Sideshow as well.
AL: How did it work for you to be part of a show in Lincoln?
CON: My wife and kids were all on the road with me while I was performing with Something Rotten. We came to Lincoln in the fall of 2018 to take a break from the road and performing for a while. Then Bob told me that TADA was going to do Chess and encouraged me to give the show a listen, which I did, and then wanted to audition.
AL: What have you enjoyed about the process?
CON: This music is so very challenging, and you must be brutally honest about counting and feeling the rhythm of each song. Many of the songs I sing are in very odd time signatures 6/8 to 2/4 to 3/4 and back to 6/8 all in a matter of one page of music. We have great music leadership and direction from Cris Rook and David Galant guiding us along and holding our feet to the fire when it comes to honoring the music and how it was written. It’s a great challenge!
AL: What is unique about this show and your role?
CON: Besides the crazy time signatures, this show doesn’t rely on a big set or theatre tricks or big flashy dance numbers. It has a captivating story with great music through which we as actors and hopefully our audiences become fully engaged. The TADA space allows the show to be done in a very authentic and engaging way. As far as this role, without giving too much away, I’d say navigating the arc of this character is a task I have never had before. I’ve always tended to do more traditional, less complex musicals plot-wise, and finding every bit of truth in every moment for my character in this piece is a big challenge.
AL: What excites you about this show?
CON: I’m usually cast as a song and dance man, and this is the first role ever where I’m planting myself and delivering songs. It’s terrifying but exhilarating at the same time!
AL: How is this different from other roles you have played?
CON: I am usually the song and dance man. This show requires a great deal of vocal stamina. Every song requires that I know exactly how I’m going to technically navigate the piece, and all the while making sure I’m resting my voice during the day and giving it the proper warm-ups it needs.
AL: How has the rest of the cast been to work with?
CON: This cast has been extremely dedicated and trusting. The show has so much difficult material and everyone is rising to the occasion. I’ve been so appreciative of how grounded, positive and committed everyone has been in this process. It is really a professional team all the way around.
AL: What is your impression of TADA?
CON: TADA has as awesome space, and they are getting rights to shows that not every theater in the country can acquire, let alone working directly with show composers and creators. Because the space is intimate, you can’t get away with being inauthentic at any moment of the show, because it will be seen. The positive side to that is you can make very small nuanced choices which will read to the entire audience, versus in a huge barn of a theatre where much of those choices would be lost. The folks at TADA are so helpful, and Bob as a director really allows us as actors to color and shade the framework he gives in each scene. His leadership and passion is evident and we know we are all part of something very special.
Chess The Rock Opera runs at The TADA Theatre at 701 P Street Lincoln, NE. February 14-24. For tickets contact www.tadatheatre.info.
(Pictured: Con O’Shea-Creal, Megan Smith and John Schnoor in Chess The Rock Opera)