NH, can you hear me?

Seacoast Rep makes itself heard with comic-book version of ‘The Who’s Tommy’

Special to the Union Leader
June 27. 2018 1:22PM
When his parents (played by Brandon James and Andrea Lyons) try to convince a traumatized young Tommy (Maddoc Johnson) that he hadn’t really witnessed a murder, his psychosomatic response is to go into a catatonic state — hearing, seeing and saying nothing at all. 
If you go...
WHAT: 'The Who's Tommy'

WHEN: Opens Friday and runs through July 29 with shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

WHERE: Seacoast Repertory Theatre, 125 Bow St., Portsmouth

TICKETS: $20 to $38; a preview show Thursday at 7:30 p.m. is $16-$22

INFO: seacoastrep.org; 433-4472

ETC.: Not appropriate for children

Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s version of “The Who’s Tommy” delivers all the bells and whistles you could want, plus a knockout twist —a living arcade.

“We wanted the whole show to feel like an immersive pinball machine. So the bells and buzzers and lights and flickers on the set — the cast bounces off of them, and jump on trampolines,” says Ben Hart, one half of production group The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc., which also curates the Rep’s offbeat Red Light Series at the Bow Street theater in Portsmouth.

This retelling of The Who’s classic 1969 concept album, which opens Friday and runs through July 29, will be a “spectacle,” says Mad Men partner Brandon James.

“This is our big project of the year. So we’re really pulling out all the stops and delivering something really, really outrageous.

“There are a lot of special effects and technical aspects to the set, the props, the costumes, the lighting. (The set is) a little dangerous, which is also kind of sexy for us,” James said. “The ‘cirque’ feel of it is something that we’re presenting as part of the package.”

The Mad Men have been busy walking on the wild side, covering Rep productions like “Rocky Horror Live,” “Rock of Ages” and “Reefer Madness.” Producing “Tommy” — a rock opera about a young boy who is rendered speechless, blind and deaf after witnessing a murder, but later finds his voice as a pinball wizard — was just second nature to them.

“We’re typically not known for your traditional musical theater,” James said. “You won’t regularly see the Mad Men putting their hands on like, a ‘Carousel’ (the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage classic), for example. This show is a really delicious marriage of rock music and storytelling through the musical-theater lens,” James said.

“Tommy” was deemed a rock opera in the genre’s early days, then garnered fame as a hit 1975 movie, featuring The Who’s Roger Daltrey in the title role, Tina Turner as the LSD-wielding Acid Queen, Golden Globe winner Ann-Margret as a mother coming unhinged, and Elton John playing the keys in an unusually tall pair of boots.

Still, it didn’t reach Broadway’s musical stage until 1993.

While some images from the cult movie won’t be duplicated on stage, the Rep’s “Tommy” closely sticks to the Broadway version, while exploring its deeper meanings. (The stage version features music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, with additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Townshend and Des McAnuff created the book.)

“It’s about a boy in London in the ’40s who witnesses a crime that his parents commit, and his psychological damage from that. And then he becomes a pinball wizard. We all sort of know that aspect of ‘Tommy.’ But for us, the story is also very ripe with undertones of the spiritual messages and spiritual awakenings,” said James. “It leaves you with a sense of hope and redemption and forgiveness.”

Framing those positive messages is the powerful, graphic set design and costuming the Mad Men culled from Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book style of art of emotion-ridden figures created through dots and other geometric shapes and MC Escher’s mind-bending, math-inspired images.

“With such an iconic piece as ‘Tommy,’ we decided to go with a very heavy pop-art aesthetic,” Hart said.

But bringing such a bold look to fruition was not a small undertaking.

“Every single costume, every single prop, the makeup, the hair, every set piece, has been hand-painted. Hundreds and hundreds of man hours have gone into hand-painting every single setting that is on stage to make you feel like you are watching a living comic book,” James said. “Everything has the Lichtenstein dot. Every fork, every knife, every clipboard and paper has been painted to have that visual. That’s certainly been a challenge.”

“The makeup in the show is massive. We have a makeup artist who has a small team, a small army of wig people (and) makeup people who are back stage working on the cast and the crew, because the crew is also on stage,” James said.

It a continuous merry-go-round of scene and costume changes.

“The cast is constantly moving. It’s like it’s a speeding train that you get on when the show starts. From then on, it’s a two-hour music video. It’s a super exciting ride,” Hart said.

James agrees the show is “wicked physical,” and points to the play’s acrobatic stunts as proof.

“There are flips and lifts, and the dancing is incredibly physical. It’s an athletic Olympic feat from start to finish. There are giant holes in the floor where (the actors are) coming in and out of and climbing up on things. And there’s slides and trampolines and ball pits and all sorts of things,” James said.

Actor Jason Faria plays the traumatized but ultimately triumphant Tommy in the rock fantasy.

“I appear through the floor, I jump down into holes in the floor, I am lifted into the air, I dance on pinball machines, but the majority of what I’m doing is to be the non-moving centerpiece amidst the sea of movement. To be so still and so grounded is totally new for me,” Faria said.

Faria, in his fourth season at the Rep, says playing someone who’s described as “deaf, dumb and blind” in the musical and score was a new experience.

“(It) is pretty disorienting and unlike anything I’ve ever done on stage. It’s practically on-stage meditation. It’s a very cool feeling,” Faria said of the role, in which Tommy becomes the object of a religious-like worship. “My task is to be a rock star, and be a sign for these people of hope.”

Faria found threads between playing an outsider like Tommy and portraying another misunderstood character.

“Recently I was Quasimodo in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at SRT, and that was probably the polar opposite role than Tommy is for me,” he said. “I’m used to playing roles with extreme physical personalities.”

For Hart and James, “Tommy” is a story they hold dear.

“For us, it’s one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and some of the best music humanity has ever made. It’s a very wonderful story with fantastic music. It’s always been one of our favorite pieces,” says Hart.

And it’s made fans out of the cast as well.

“I’ve always loved the song ‘Pinball Wizard’ and it is certainly the center point of the amazing masterpiece that is ‘Tommy,’” Faria said. “Singing this score is just such a good time. I love this music.”

A seven-piece rock band will tackle the score.

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