Before “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Rent,” there was Tommy. The 1969 album by The Who was the first of its kind to fuse rock with theater, spawning the play “The Who’s Tommy” and helped establish Rock Musical with such memorable songs as “The Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard” and “Fiddle About.” This blend of media has been imitated for many years, resulting in some of the most evocative productions brought to the stage. And this weekend’s production serves as the culminating performance of the Department of Musical Theater’s main stage season.
“Tommy,” with book and music written by Who mainstay Pete Townshend, follows the life of its title character, a boy plagued by the traumas of his childhood. While still a child, he watches his father gun down his mother’s lover, and conjures himself as deaf, dumb and blind shortly thereafter. He is abused. And he discovers a gift for pinball that launches him into celebrity-like stardom, just to be ultimately shunned by the same public who fostered his fame.
Music School senior Alex Brumel plays the role of Tommy during his young adult years. A longtime Who fan, Brumel is excited about the band’s songs coming to life on stage.
“(The play) really is the whole The Who record cover to cover,” Brumel said. “It’s an incredible experience.”
The aesthetics of the stage are equally incredible, Brumel said. Adhering to the vision of the original stage design, the set was modeled after the cover of the Tommy record. The image of the blue-lattice pattern, with black-and-white images of the band’s members peeking out from underneath, serves as central focus, and this loyalty to the original production is a facet Brumel admires.
“Our production is deeply rooted in the original,” Brumel said. “People walk into the theater and originally identify it as the cover, which is important.”
Still, this begs an obvious question: How does you go about tackling so weighty a subject, especially to the sounds of sharp guitar riffs and raucous drum sequences?
“It’s a dramatic challenge, but rock music almost makes it work,” Brumel said. “It lets us present everything. We can squeeze what we need into the music-if it’s a celebratory mood, the music becomes more celebratory.”
School of Music senior Dave Hull, who served as assistant choreographer along with Choreographer-Director Linda Goodrich, echoes Brumel’s assertion that the theatrical should reflect the thematic. The fickle relationship between Tommy and the society around him becomes demonstrated through the show’s many dance routines, which combine nuances of jazz, modern and even hip hop.
“The (dance) numbers are so involved,” Brumel said. “When Tommy is an outcast, he’s left out of them, when he is embraced by the public the numbers envelope him.”
Hull also plays the role of Cousin Kevin, a character which he describes as “a teenager in every sense of the word” – and who uses the pinball-prodigy’s success for his own personal gain.
Cousin Kevin may be an adolescent, but he seems all too reminiscent of a merciless and exploitative agent, and that characterization is part of the reason that Brumel believes Townshend rendered Tommy as an exploration of how one deals with stardom.
“Townsend had the idea that people expected something beyond human out of him,” Brumel said. “Toward the end of the show, people are asking Tommy, ‘how can I be like you?’ But the message is that there’s no secret, if you think that (someone) has everything, maybe it’s because their eyes are open, and (they) can see, feel and hear everything.”
Brumel picked his words carefully. The album’s arguably most famous lyrics, “See me / Feel me / Touch me / Heal me,” run through several songs, and “Tommy” is a musical which begs just that.
The Who’s Tommy
Tonight and Tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Reserved Seating $19
General Admission $22
At the Power Center