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There are an infinite number of good ways to fill a brilliant Saturday. Spending eight hours in a 1,000-square-foot windowless room that's entirely painted black does not seem to be one of them. But that's where the 21-member cast of the Rep's upcoming musical production of “Tommy” found themselves on such a day in late May.
The prop-strewn black box — there was a gurney bed here, a wheelchair there, an apparent torture table waiting to be hauled in from outside — served as the ensemble's rehearsal space as they awaited completion of the musical's elaborate set. With just two weeks to go before the show was to open, it also doubled as a think-tank of sorts — it was here that the cast was experimenting to create the production audiences will see throughout June.
“You can't have all the ideas at the beginning — and that goes for the director and every actor — because theater is such a collaborative process,” said Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, “Tommy's” director, in a cast interview a few days after the rehearsal. “There's no way that anybody can walk into the rehearsal hall with all the answers at square one. It's like a chess game — one person makes a move and that initiates someone else's move. Once you get certain information, whether it comes from the actors or the director, that leads you to some other light bulb going off.”
According to her actors, Kurdziel-Formato is particularly good at running productions in a way that maximizes players' creativity. “Lynne comes in with a structure, with basically a great outline for us to then fill in the blanks,” said Brad Little, who play's Tommy's father. “That's not found a lot. She trusts us enough to bring in our experiences and our ideas and how we have interpreted a certain moment.”
That working method is a perfect fit for “Tommy,” which in its original version — a 1969 album by the Who — is essentially a series of character sketches arranged around the loosest of plots: A deaf, dumb and blind kid, who happens to be very good at pinball, overcomes early-life difficulties to become the leader of a messianic cult.
“What has been the most fun through the whole rehearsal process has been trying to create our version of ‘Tommy,' our story of Tommy,” Little said. “It has been just a great rehearsal process of trying to figure out how to make this album into our musical.”
Famously the first “rock opera” ever recorded, “Tommy” has had a surprisingly long shelf life. The album certainly has its moments — its best-known song, “Pinball Wizard,” sticks in your head by force of its straightforward guitar playing and absurd lyrics (“He plays by sense of smell”). Yet “Pinball Wizard” is not really characteristic of the record as a whole, which consists of reprised themes, short vignettes, multi-movement overtures — in short, songs that lack the electricity of the Who's finest. In fact, pinball has no real relevance to the album's story; Pete Townsend, the band's principal songwriter, tossed it off because he thought it would please an influential music critic.
Yet the same qualities that make “Tommy” a dodgy rock album also make it prime stuff for musical treatment. That it has a pseudo-plot built in is certainly one reason; that the songs tend to feature vocals and arrangement over loud guitars and rhythm is another. And “Tommy's” general garishness doesn't hurt either, which Ken Russell acknowledged with his rock-star-filled 1975 film version, now a cult classic. Finally, in 1993, Townsend and Des McAnuff put the material on Broadway, its most natural habitat, where it played for two years.
The producers of the Rep's production have been conscious not to replicate the Broadway show, or even their own previous work on the musical. (Kurdziel-Formato once staged “Tommy” in Buffalo — a production she described as “a la Cirque du Soleil, half rock concert, half dance concert.”) The Rep's iteration tends to put a tighter focus on the Tommy character than is customary.
“There's more going on here than just what's in the surface world; we have to be able to look into Tommy's mind as well,” Kurdziel-Formato said. “I think we go into the psychological element a lot more than they did on Broadway. They kept it more in a real world on Broadway, and while we deal with the real world, you will also see Tommy's psychological world layered over that.”
While Christina Sajous took inspiration from Tina Turner's film performance as the Acid Queen, the drug-addled siren who is one of Tommy's best-known characters, she has chosen to depart from Turner's model.
“I was a major fan of Tina Turner, so once I found out she played the role I studied her,” Sajous said. “And I actually try to make it very different from her. Instead of making her very conventional — the prostitute or drug addict or drug dealer — I'm making her more of a priestess, or a woman of power and a healer.” (Kurdziel-Formato was quick to pipe in that none of this talk should be taken to mean that the play is light on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.)
Brian Hissong, the actor who plays Tommy, has a particular challenge — he must portray someone who doesn't speak for much of the production but who has a rich inner life. While Hissong narrates the early portions of the show, before the character gains his voice, a good portion of his acting consists of physically channeling someone who can't hear, see or speak. During a rehearsed version of “Pinball Wizard,” for instance, Hissong worked to mimic the behavior of a silent mystic as the troupe sang their lungs out around him. The contrast between the mute Hissong and the ebullient troupe was stark.
“Tommy is the narrator up until he grows into his 18th year, so you sort of see the fact that the child Tommy, even though to the world he looks like he's comatose, actually has a lot going on in his mind,” Kurdziel-Formato said of the character.
Kurdziel-Formato's focus on the psychological over the external world is reflected in the set — a fanciful imitation of a pinball machine created by Mike Nichols, the Rep's longtime resident set designer. To stage left is an inclined walkway that suggests a pinball ramp; it leads to a raised rotating platform. A massive painted Union Jack drapes the stage and the set machinery.
If the set design and the rehearsals are an accurate indication, “Tommy” promises to be big eye candy. But, though the material is flexible enough to be open to interpretation, Kurdziel-Formato finds a firm message in the production beyond pure entertainment.
“You cannot walk through the world deaf, dumb and blind,” she said. “You have to see what's around you. You have to be able to speak up for what's right and speak your own mind when it's necessary. Tommy's acolytes follow him thinking that that's the only way to go. I think the message there is that there are many pathways to follow. You need to know how to open up your mind, your heart, your eyes, and see what's right for you.”
Tommy opens June 5 and runs through June 28. Shows begin at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays; 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. A public preview will be staged 8 p.m. June 4. There will be a discussion 45 minutes before the preview. The Rep advises that “Tommy” contains mature themes.
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