Prepare to feel your age...

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Fri Oct 5 08:52:52 CDT 2007

>From the Pantagraph:

ISU gives 'Tommy' a try
By Dan Craft

NORMAL -- How far back into the mist has the world's
first great rock opera receded?

Let's put it this way:

By the time the cast of Illinois State University's
impending production was being born back in the
mid-to-late '80s, The Who's "Tommy" was nearing its
20th anniversary.

The movie version was already 15 years old.

And one of its key architects, drummer Keith Moon, had
been dead for nearly 10 years.

By the time the cast of the new version was in junior
high school, another of its creators, bass player John
Entwistle, had split for that big Tommy's Holiday Camp
in the sky.

Even the seemingly recent Broadway rendition,
officially titled "The Who's Tommy," is
fast-approaching its 15th anniversary.

So as all pop culture institutions eventually must,
"Tommy" is en route to becoming a museum piece.

But not this weekend ... not by a long pinball shot.

On the stage of ISU's Center for the Performing Arts
Theatre, director Lori Adams and her cast and crew are
having the time of their lives seeing, feeling and
touching Pete Townshend & Co.'s 1969 milestone.

And they're learning just how timeless and universal
this fable about the deaf, dumb and blind kid really

Premiering an eight-performance run at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, "The Who's Tommy" is a rendition of the 1993
stage adaptation -- the first performance of that
version at the local level.

Adams, a child of the original "Tommy" era, petitioned
to direct the show after the play selection committee
at ISU placed it in the 2007-8 season roster (for the
record, all directors must petition to direct desired
shows, and give the reasons why).

Her reasons were simple enough: "I love rock 'n' roll,
and I understand it, and I'd been listening to it
since I was a kid," she begins. "My wanting to do it
had everything to do with the fact that it was a rock
'n' roll musical."

And despite her long track record of helming operas
and other kinds of musicals, she had never gotten the
chance to rock the proscenium arch.

This was her big chance, "even though I was a little
overwhelmed thinking of how I was going to do it."

Soon, though, she wrapped her sensibility around it
and found the solution.

In lieu of the over-the-top production glitz
associated with the Broadway version, not to mention
director Ken Russell's delirious 1975 film version,
Adams says she decided to return to basics.

"The thing that struck me for the first time when I
listened to it again was: you can't do 'The Who's
Tommy' without it being about the band. I'm not sure
that's the main intention of the Broadway show, which
is highly theatrical, of course -- all singing and

So Adams' first plan of attack was to put The Who,
figuratively speaking, back front and center.

"That's what I felt from the very first moment," she
continues, which will explain the presence of the band
directly on stage instead of off to the side or in the
pit, a la the Broadway edition. "When people come to
see 'Tommy,' it should be like they're going to see a
rock concert."

One problem with that decision, though: Putting a band
on stage representing The Who in "Tommy" is like being
asked to put your money where your mouth is.

Adams realized that creating a rock band from scratch
in the ISU School of Theare might be a stretch. So she
put out a call to the Bloomington-Normal community
last May for musicians who would be Townshend,
Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon.

In the end, music director Pete Guither (also pitching
in himself on keyboards) assembled a house band
comprised mostly of ... ISU students.

"They're the most amazing group of young people,"
Adams marvels. "They've been rehearsing all summer,
and are totally committed to the show. And now they're

Meaning, yes, they've mastered not only The Who's
musical style, but also the band's infamous stage
anarchy, with all manner of jumping, leaping and doing

Also deeply into it at this point, says Adams, are the
youthful cast members who were unborn when the deaf,
dumb and blind "Tommy" first came into the world as an
album in 1969.

"I've been sort of amazed to find all these kids who
sing the way they do," says Adams. "I didn't realize
it going in, but all the men singers have to be
tenors, and all the women have to be altos. To find as
many tenors as we have is quite a feat. And they can
sing like rock stars."

Yes, but do they relate to a show 40 years removed in

"I think they do," says Adams. "I know that one of the
funny things I've learned is that when students were
auditioning for the show, they'd tell me their parents
loved The Who, and they knew the music because their
parents had played it."

Keeping the production's Who moorings upfront, Adams
also knew the actor she cast in the title role of the
messianic Tommy had to look like the man who created
the role on record and, later, on film: Who lead
singer Roger Daltry.

"He had to have that child-like, boyish, cute look,
with a sweet voice," she says. "I thought, who (pun
possibly intended) in the world are we going to get to
play that part? That was the thing that concerned me
going in: who can we find able to embrace that sort of
rock spirit and innocence, and be good-looking enough
that people in the audience will want to crawl up on
stage with him like they do at a rock concert?"

Enter Nick Harden, who, says Adams, "is marvelous" and
has made the deaf, dumb and blind kid everything she
thinks he needs to be.

As, she adds, have all the youthful actors, musicians
and crew members involved.

The moment she knew "The Who's Tommy" had transformed
itself into "ISU's Tommy" occurred the first time the
curtain call part of the show was rehearsed.

The actors on stage "just started going and moving,
and it didn't matter what generation they were from.
Then everybody in the theater, crew included, got
caught up in it, and started singing and dancing and
pretending they were smashing guitars and jumping

They were seeing, touching, feeling "Tommy," with no
holds barred.

That's the spirit Adams hopes infects the show's
potential audience.

"My hope is that we tap into people who never thought
they'd come to see a theater production, or who never
thought it would interest them," she says. "If they go
this weekend, the word will spread."

And, to paraphrase one of the show's key anthems,
they'll get excitement at their feet.

-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!

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