It would be tempting, but overly simple, to grab song titles and describe The Who’s Tommy as a “Sensation” and an “Amazing Journey” – even though it is, at times, both of those things. In reality, there’s nothing simple about the show, an ambitious stage adaptation of The Who’s seminal rock opera and concept album. At the heart of the story is Tommy Walker, who is struck “deaf, dumb and blind” after witnessing a violent act in his home at the age of four and spends the next 15 years unable to connect with the world around him – until he discovers an uncanny ability to win at pinball.
At Port Tobacco Players in La Plata, MD., the cast and crew of Tommy know they’re taking on a significant challenge for a community theater troupe, but they’re also having a great time putting it on.
“This whole endeavor has been so much fun,” says Ryan Dolan, who plays the title character. As Tommy, “I’m allowed to exhibit aspects of my personality that I usually keep in check,” he explains. Kristen Page-Kirby, who plays Mrs. Walker, finds enjoyment in the craft of maintaining her character arc, which spans 20 years in the two-hour show. “At one point, she jumps from being 21 to 28 years old in a moment,” Page-Kirby says. “Learning to establish how the years have affected her when those years aren’t represented on stage was tough, but great fun.”
Fans of The Who and classic rock may have memories of seeing the 1975 movie version of Tommy starring Ann-Margret and Tina Turner, among others. It’s a trippy film, a product of the zeitgeist of that decade. But the show, written by The Who frontman Pete Townshend and the prolific theater director Des McAnuff, is more like a stage musical (while maintaining its rock roots) and is rich in theatrical moments. Director Brooke L. Howells – who is achieving a dream by directing Tommy, her “all-time favorite show” – found the first of many of these moments all the way back at auditions. “When adult Tommy and 10-year-old Tommy [played by Dolan and 11-year-old Wyatt Edwards] sang ‘See Me’ together – it made my heart ache and soar at the same time. It still does,” she says.
For the actors, almost universally, the music has been the show’s most significant challenge. “None of us have really done hardcore rock operas like this,” says Michael Margelos, who plays multiple parts in the ensemble, including the Hawker (who sings one half of the duet “Eyesight to the Blind”). And the vocal range for many of the male parts, especially, is quite high. “Even if you’re a bass, you’re hitting notes up in the rafters,” Margelos says. Dolan, who sings baritone professionally with the Singing Sergeants (the official chorus of the United States Air Force Band), is playing a role written for a tenor – “and has done a great job,” notes Music Director James D. Watson. “The whole cast has risen to the challenge” of the difficult vocal score, Watson adds, helped along by prescribed vocal exercises in and out of rehearsals.
The technical elements proved to be yet another hurdle to clear for the small theater company – the script calls for, among other things, Royal Air Force troops to jump out of a plane, a pinball machine to buck like a bronco, and Tommy to be able to see both his own reflection and the specter of himself at different ages within a mirror (which also gets smashed on stage in Act 2). The entire production staff fed off Howells’ passion for the show and, rather than shy away from these moments, embraced them and worked to make them beautiful and theatrical. “I hope the audience leaves with a deep appreciation of the skill and artistry our designers expressed, and maybe even a few ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ moments,” Howells says.
For his part, Edwards has enjoyed playing 10-year-old Tommy – a difficult role in which the character endures bullying and abuse while not being able to react to any of it – because “it’s a role I won’t be able to play again for the rest of my life,” he says. His father, Brian Edwards, plays keyboard in the pit orchestra and has immensely enjoyed sharing the experience with his son. “It’s tough not being able to see the show [from the pit] but I do get to hear Wyatt sing at every performance,” he says. “I’m not playing when he sings, so I can just sit back and soak it in.”
With its rock-and-roll roots, audiences may not expect Tommy to be a deep experience, but the cast and staff know this is a show that stays with audiences long after the curtain falls. “The finale will always give me chills,” Margelos says. “The indescribable emotional state of the cast at that point absolutely fills the theater and affects everyone in so many different ways.” As for Howells, who pinpoints the beginnings of her love of theater to when she saw Tommy as a teenager, “My favorite message from the show is that the unexpectedness of life takes you on a journey that you can never fully understand. Adversity shapes our human form no matter what we try to do about it, and it makes us who we are. That’s what I hope people take away from our production.”
The Who’s Tommy plays through August 11, 2013 at Port Tobacco Players – 508 Charles Street, in La Plata, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 932-6819, or purchase them online.
Here are directions to Port Tobacco Players.