There will be no intermission in the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild production of “The Who’s Tommy” because director Keith Lorasch wants to keep the amazing journey zipping along at pinball-level quickness.
“It runs 90 minutes,” Lorasch said of the musical, which opens Thursday. “One of the reasons why I chose to do that was because of the momentum and not wanting the momentum to die down.”
Even while moving with the energy of a rock ‘n’ roll performance, the show will be recognizable to most fans of popular music from the preceding half-century.
It’s an adaptation of the 1969 album by rock legends The Who. The album “Tommy” is listed at No. 96 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and in 1998 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
A 1975 movie version of the story drew mixed critical response, but it featured a big name cast such as Roger Daltrey, The Who’s lead singer, in the title role.
Plus, the Broadway production earned multiple Tony Award wins and nominations when it premiered in 1993.
However, Lorasch said he’s found many aren’t familiar with the stage show about the deaf, dumb and blind boy who rises to messiah level fame on the strength of pinball wizardry — and that was one of the attractions for him.
“It’s not the typical show, it’s not a show that’s done a lot, and unfortunately it’s not a show that a lot of people know,” he said. “I wish people knew it better.”
Cast member Nathan Libby said that, like Lorasch, the production’s pace caught his attention.
“The music is relentless,” said Libby, cast as the juvenile (and adult) delinquent Cousin Kevin. “There’s a constant momentum going on in the music to the show, and since the show is all music, it just never stops going. Even in the concept album you’d at least have to flip it over to the other side.”
The comment drew a laugh from Libby’s cast members, all discussing the production on a recent evening at the Theatre Guild office.
The musical’s tempo may be one reason it isn’t staged particularly often.
“We were talking a little bit in rehearsal last night about developing the stamina that’s going to be needed for the show,” Lorasch said. “We had pit rehearsal last Sunday. We had to make some stops because this, that and the other thing. But just trying to play through it (the musicians) were exhausted afterwards, and they had stops.”
Further reason for hesitation on the part of potential directors, Lorasch suspects, is the difficulty of the music. True to opera, the production is entirely sung, and the singing is challenging.
“Out of the hour and a half of music that is in the show, there are only six measures of unison, so there is always part singing going on,” Lorasch said. “The finale I think it’s like 10 parts are happening at the same time. There’s a sequence where there are nine extremely independent parts going on at the same time.”
For some cast members, the familiar songs by Who guitarist-songwriter-singer Pete Townshend prompted them to audition. That includes John Gustafson, who plays Uncle Ernie, a character Gustafson described as “a walking id.”
“I discovered the album when I was in high school and have been in love with it ever since,” he said. “I have been in love with the idea of the concept album and the rock opera as a subset.”
The same is true for Frank Rineck, who plays the title character or, as he puts it, “Big Tommy,” as other actors play the character at ages 4 and 10, respectively.
“I had been kind of talking to Keith about this for a little beforehand and we had been hoping and hoping with our fingers crossed that this could come to a reality,” Rineck said.
“I’d been introduced to the music a while ago. ‘Tommy’ was actually the second record I ever bought. (The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the first.)
“I got hooked on the music itself right away,” he continued. “I’m a big fan of The Who, Pete Townshend’s one of my favorite songwriters. So when we finally got the green light to go, I was definitely going to be auditioning right when I heard it.”
Jason Lynn, playing Captain Walker, Tommy’s father, recalled that when he was young his father had 10 to 12 peach crates full of records. “And ‘Tommy’ was one of the ones he played (the most), it’s probably in his top three because The Who was his favorite band,” Lynn said. “And I was also fascinated as a young kid about a story about a kid playing pinball and adults actually liking it.”
The fact that his father passed away “not too long ago” and that he appreciates the concept of a rock album provided all the convincing Lynn needed to try out for the show.
Kobi Shaw, portraying Tommy’s mother, said she has always loved the music, and was living in New York when it opened and got to see it then. But she was drawn as much to the fact that the music is rock ‘n’ roll as opposed to the more traditional show-tune style found in musicals.
“You have those opportunities to do Rodgers and Hammerstein, but how often do you get an opportunity to sing The Who?” she said.
Shaw is especially excited to sing the one song that’s in the Broadway show but not on the original album, the plaintive ballad “I Believe My Own Eyes.”
Narrative clarity offers another strong point of the theatrical production, in contrast to the story presented in the album and film version.
“The stage show is definitely the most impactful version of the thing that they’ve been been trying to work on since the ‘60s,” Libby said. “The stage show distills everything down and makes it easier to follow for the audience and will make it the most entertaining version of ‘Tommy’ that exists, and I feel like we have the best opportunity to present a cohesive story to the audience with this version.”
Theatrical devices help with that clarity, Lorasch said. The album includes a number of instrumental interludes, he said, and Townshend and original production director Des McAnuff used those spots to stage short acting sequences that help define characters and relationships.
“So when the actual singing starts, as it did on the album, (with) ‘Captain Walker didn’t come home,’ you know why, but it’s all from stuff that you’ve seen, not anything that’s been told to you or sung to you,” he said.
As for how the theatrical show’s music will compare with The Who’s, Rineck quipped, “I don’t think we’re smashing any guitars,” alluding to one of Townshend’s signature moves in concert.
Characters such as Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin offer opportunities to portray evil in a campy style. (Libby says of Kevin: “Not the kid that you want baby sitting your child.”)
But the roles of Tommy’s parents call for more complicated emotions.
As Lynn noted, Captain Walker doesn’t even meet his son until he’s 4 years old, and initially there is a certain distance between them. However, he added that the relationship grows as the search goes on for Tommy’s cure. “You can see him become closer because he’s the one that’s always a little optimistic that the tests might work ... and we just have to keep plugging away at it.”
Mrs. Walker, Shaw pointed out, feels responsible for her son’s condition, “So I think there’s this underlying sadness and she’s always searching to find a cure for him — and just looking for small human connections.”
From an acting standpoint, the lead character of Tommy must cover an expansive amount of ground, Rineck said. The character starts out listed as the Narrator, during which time “he literally can move people around and really orchestrate the scene almost as if it’s being portrayed as his memory.”
Then, after his sensory losses, he doesn’t know what will happen next. That’s followed by the smashed mirror, return of his senses and a messiah complex, “which comes back full circle to, at the end, I’m singing to my parents,” he said.
The scenic concept will be sparse, Lorasch said, although it will feature the original Broadway projections created by the famous designer Wendall K. Harrington. She also did the projections for such Broadway shows such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Elephant Man,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and “Ragtime.”
The costume designer, Lillian McRaven (also playing the roles of wedding guest, lass and Mrs. Simpson) received simple instructions.
“The one thing that I told her is to really focus on color,” Lorasch said, “so things are bright as things are happening in Tommy’s mind.”
As much as the cast members love the show, they have found it isn’t the easiest production to describe.
For instance, Rineck, a UW-Eau Claire student, suggested a different way to describe “The Who’s Tommy” for friends who are in the university’s music department: “Come and watch this rock opera, come and watch this rock concert, and also you get to see all the lights and all of the costumes and all of the dramatic creation that Keith and everyone has worked on all in one.”
Or, as Libby put it: “Don’t just read the Wikipedia article and think that you’ve got it nailed. On paper it doesn’t sound as immersive as it is. And you can’t get the experience unless you come see the show.”