Usually, The Who’s Tommy is thought of as a large-scale musical filled with special effects and flashy design. Interestingly, Obscene Courageous Theatre Company, a relatively young company in Denver, chose a low-tech angle for its current production of the play, running through Sunday, June 22 at Denver’s Dangerous Theatre.
For the uninitiated, The Who’s Tommy is a rock musical by Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff based on The Who’s concept album, Tommy from the late 1960s. It premiered on Broadway in 1993 and ran for more than two years thanks to clever repurposing of classic Who songs such as “Pinball Wizard,” “Tommy Can You Hear Me” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The plot is focused on Tommy, a young boy who is accidentally left deaf, dumb and blind after a confrontation between his mother’s lover and his father. He is very much alive on the inside, but cannot express himself to others. Eventually, through sex, drugs and pinball, Tommy begins to find out how to express himself, and eventually (and unexpectedly) becomes a rock star.
It should be easy to imagine why the show lends itself to a large-scale production.
Director Sarah Crockarell’s direction reminds me of “poor theatre” — a type of experimental theatre popular in the 1960s that stripped the stage of basically everything. This may seem like an odd choice for a production of Tommy, and while some aspects of this concept work, others do not.
The audience enters to a bare stage featuring only a lone keyboardist. The lighting is minimal and is left on in the audience for much of the show. Crockarell makes good use of a curtain that the actors are lit in shadow behind. She also places some of the action on the side of the audience, adding to the production’s “environmental theatre” feel. The space is very intimate and the audience sits at tables. Crockarell has even prepared a Tommy drinking game and the audience is encouraged to bring their own alcohol. Reimaging the traditional theatre space was a good production choice and added to the excitement of the production.
This scaled-down approach really puts the focus on the story and the cast, and those directorial choices do a good job of telling a difficult, non-literal story in which much of the focus is on Tommy’s mental experiences.
The cast of the production is hit and miss. All of the actors work very hard and are engaged in the performance, but some are in over their heads musically and, being a younger company, some of the casting choices did not work. For example, casting actors younger than Tommy to play his parents. Crockarell makes the interesting choice to cast Cousin Kevin, a bully and tormenter of Tommy, usually played by a male, as a female and Sarah-Rose DiGiovanni attacks this role with devilish glee. Alexa Frank shows off a gorgeous singing voice as Tommy’s mother. Andrew Nelson throws himself very capably into many various and different roles. As Tommy, James Miller turns in a terrific performance. The role puts many limitations on the actor — for most of the musical he can’t speak — so Miller is left to communicate his thoughts, frustrations and emotional pain through body language and facial expression. Miller has good range; he’s capable of playing the doe-eyed child and he can also tap into a manic energy he uses in some of the more distressing scenes. Another great production choice is to have Miller play keyboard on a couple of songs and interact with keyboardist Pieter Orlandini.
Musically, the choice to go minimal leaves a lot to be desired. Orlandini is a competent keyboardist, but the orchestrations and rhythm of the music are hard to recreate with just a keyboard. The cast works to overcome this, using some acoustic guitars and slapping the floor for syncopation, but a lot of the depth of the show’s score is lost.
Though it’s daring to take on such a technically complex musical on a small scale, much of The Who’s Tommy’s success comes from it being big, provocative, theatrical entertainment, and scaling it down so far ultimately creates more problems than it solves.
But if you are looking for an edgy musical theatre experience this weekend, Tommy is the way to go. Obscene Courageous and Denver’s Dangerous Theatre went to great lengths to make this production an interesting experience for the audience. It’s great to see a young theatre company willing to take risks, and I look forward to seeing their future work.