The Who’s landmark 1969 album “Tommy” didn’t originate the concept of the rock opera, but it was certainly the first record to designate itself as one. “Tommy” is 70-some minutes of dizzying highs and depraved lows, and it unspools an insane, often abstract plot that involves war, murder, adultery, drugs, hysterical blindness, religious fanaticism and, of course, pinball. The word “restraint” is not in its vocabulary.
The album was adapted by director Ken Russell into an even crazier 1975 film starring Who frontman Roger Daltrey as Tommy, and again by Who guitarist Pete Townshend as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 1992.
Lake City Playhouse premieres its stripped-down take on the stage version, as directed by Troy Nickerson, this weekend as the first part in a series of special-run concerts at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Future events include the Broadway classics “Rent,” “Company” and “Hair.”)
Nickerson, who just wrapped a stint as the director of Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” said that the talent of the assembled singers – including LCP musical director Zack Baker, who portrays Tommy while simultaneously playing electric guitar – is impressive.
“I went in for the first time on Monday after ‘Fiddler’ closed, and I heard them sing,” he said. “I was just blown out of the water. This is a talented group of singers, and they’ll bring the house down.”
The show concerns a boy named Tommy Walker who, following a string of childhood traumas, becomes “deaf, dumb and blind.” His parents are desperate to cure him (“Imagine, though, the shock from isolation / When he suddenly can hear and speak and see”) through often extreme means – one involves a prostitute and some LSD – afraid that he’ll never know salvation (“Tommy doesn’t know what day it is / He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is / How can he be saved / From the eternal grave?”).
Tommy becomes a pinball prodigy and then a religious Svengali in a bizarre story that tackles issues of faith, drugs, family dysfunction, pop iconography and the messianic worship of rock stars.
When it was initially released, the “Tommy” album was hailed as the next logical step in rock ’n’ roll innovation, and it saw the Who embracing theatricality in a way few mainstream bands had before, kicking down the barrier between popular music and dramaturgy. The Broadway show was even longer and more outlandish than the album, but LCP strips everything away and focuses on the music.
“It’s simply staged,” Nickerson said. “It’s not an elaborate set; it’s a really scaled-down production. But hopefully the story still comes through – it’s all in the music and lyrics.”
“Tommy” exists as a fascinating, deranged document of the post-“Sgt. Pepper’s” cultural landscape of the late 1960s, when artistic stakes were set so high that it wasn’t enough to simply craft a catchy guitar riff. But it remains powerful and fascinating in its sheer scope and ambition, and Nickerson says the show will work as well for Who superfans as it will for the uninitiated.
“People who are familiar with it will really be connected to the music,” he said. “I brought in a friend the other day who’s really familiar with the music, and I was watching her closing her eyes and having those sense memories. And people who don’t know it are going to be like, ‘Wow, this is strange and interesting.’ So it’s new and different to them and old and familiar to others.”
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