Arts Previews… Tommy

Combine all music geniuses and theatre jocks on campus, and the outcome is this year’s first Theatre 520 production, “The Who’s Tommy,” which will be performed in Tang Theatre this weekend. This grand-scale rock musical will feature outstanding acting, dancing, singing, flying and even visual projections to heighten the experience. Watching “The Who’s Tommy” is like going to see a live rock concert. Flashing colored lights, loud music and crazy dancing create an overwhelming atmosphere of frenzied excitement that sucks audiences in from start to finish. “The show has phenomenal energy,” said Marilyn Harris ’11, a member of the ensemble. Long before Tommy’s birth, Captain Walker, starring Peter Yang ’10, departs to fight in the Gulf War, leaving pregnant Mrs. Walker, played by Kristina Rex ’11, in London. After having been mistakenly notified of her husband’s death, Mrs. Walker finds a new boyfriend, played by Duncan Crystal ’10. Captain Walker eventually returns from the war, and Tommy witnesses his father kill Mrs. Walker’s boyfriend. As a result of this traumatic experience, young Tommy becomes deaf, dumb and blind. The rock-opera chronicles Tommy’s parents’ efforts to find a cure for their son’s affliction, while also showing the audience what is going on inside Tommy’s catatonic mind. To help tell the story of Tommy’s transformation from helpless child to “Pinball Wizard,” three actors were cast to play Tommy at different stages of his life. Tyler Murphy plays Young Tommy, while Christoph von Braun ’12 plays Older Tommy and Patrick Brady ’11 plays Adult Tommy. The three interact with each other throughout the show inside Tommy’s mind, their faces appearing in mirrors and on the enormous projector screens that make up the unconventional stage set. “A lot of the show is not real,” said Harris, “It happens in Tommy’s head. Conveying this idea to the audience is a huge technical challenge.” Erin Strong, Chair of Theater and Dance, wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “There are so many components to this play…The fact that we are highlighting a rock band is certainly something very unique. Our use of digital projections, the complicated harmonies the ensemble needs to sing, the unconventional set structure- it is really an elaborate production. The meshing of all the elements of this show makes it truly something grand in size, energy and entertainment.” At the beginning of the show, the screens projections display a video montage of American history that provides background for this production’s Gulf War setting, a twist on the World War II setting of the original Broadway production of “The Who’s Tommy.” After showing the stained-glass windows of the church where Tommy’s parents, Mr. Walker and Mrs. Walker get married, the projections follow Mr. Walker off to war. These projections, created by the Theater Production class, continue throughout the show as a backdrop to the action on stage. The complicated plot of “The Who’s Tommy” also requires an extremely talented and versatile cast. Sparks fly, literally, during the first scene of the show, when Kristina Rex ’11 and Rachel Coleman ’10 weld metal onstage. Peter Yang ’10 and Duncan Crystal ’10 have broken several chairs attempting to learn stage combat techniques for their fight scene. Mandi Thran ’11 wows the audience with her rendition of “Acid Queen,” while Andrew Schlager plays a perverted uncle in “Fiddle About.” All the while, the members of the ensemble change costumes at lightning speed, as they need to perform in almost every scene. Harris said she plays six roles, ranging from a harlot to a member of a church choir, and even helps move scenery in her spare time. There are so many bits and pieces to this elaborate production that it seems impossible that the show could ever run smoothly. Thankfully, “The Who’s Tommy” is blessed with a stellar stage crew, led by Mark Efinger, Instructor in Theater, and Stage Manager Katy Svec ’10. “Katy Svec is the best stage manager I’ve ever worked with,” said Efinger. “During the shows, she will be entirely in charge. There are 180 light cues, and she will be telling every one of them when to start.” Svec’s job also includes directing the people who run the six computers that run the show over an intercom system. A professional “flying crew” provides additional assistance at one point in the production, helping Yang and Brady to “fly” across the stage on harnesses. “It’s actually really cool,” said Yang. “Our harnesses were used on Broadway—in fact mine’s from ‘The Lion King.’ We’ve even got some professional people here to help with them, so it has been a really awesome experience. But the harness is not very comfortable. It may look uncomfortable, but it’s actually even less comfortable than it looks.” Strong choreographed the dancing for the rock-opera. “The choreography I did for ‘Tommy’ draws upon some quintessential jazz dance movements,” wrote Strong. “However, we have [changed the setting of] the show to 1990 through to the present day, so I also tried to create movement that had a pop culture feel to it.” She described a particular scene in which the cast rocks out on stage: “We even have Tommy fall into the crowd [and] be carried above their heads. [It’s] similar to what you might see at an actual rock concert.” A group of instrumentalists directed by Derek Jacoby, Instructor in Music, provides the live music for the production. Keyboardist Anjali Narayan-Chen ’10 said, “Unlike anything I’ve seen before, [“The Who’s Tommy”] is a collaboration of a lot of people’s efforts, both the Theater Department and the Music Department. It’s one thing to hear a recording being played, but if the actual band is performing in front of you, it makes it a whole lot more of a lively experience.” Harris said, “My favorite part of ‘Tommy’ is the music. It carries the show and makes it fun. But there are so many sights and sounds! ‘Tommy’ is just an amazing experience.”