By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Scene 1: Enter the prince
It's the first hour of the first day of rehearsal for Dallas Theater Center's first production of its 50th season. The show is The Who's Tommy, the sprawling rock musical based on a 1969 concept album about a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" cured by spiritual enlightenment. Opening September 2, it is the first show directed here by Kevin Moriarty, who is not quite a year into his job as DTC's artistic director, only the fifth in its history.
This meet-and-greet on an early August afternoon is in DTC's Kalita Humphreys Theater, the 491-seat house inside the concrete stack of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed geometry, jutting out of a hill above Turtle Creek. Among the 75 people who have gathered are Tommy cast members, musicians and designers, plus office staff and a few longtime board members who have come in from the searing heat to Kalita's notoriously arctic air-conditioned chill. On the way into the auditorium, some grab red blankets from the stack near the lobby door.
Squeals and hugs erupt among actors who know each other. Dallas actress Liz Mikel, who's playing the Acid Queen and is one of three local performers cast in leading roles, sees Cedric Neal, who's playing Tommy, and hugs him so hard he almost disappears in her arms. They've worked together before. "I'm so nervous, I'm about to pee in my pants," says Neal, an Equity actor who will be performing at DTC for the first time.
In strides Gregory Lush, a Theatre Three star last season, who will play Uncle Ernie. He leans down to introduce himself to 11-year-old Christian Childs, who'll play Tommy as a 10-year-old. "It's nice to meet you, and I apologize in advance," says Lush, whose character does not-so-nice things to little Tommy. Childs, who has taken acting classes at DTC since he was 4, nods coolly. The young actor has caused a stir already, wearing a tight Mohawk haircut and wraparound sunglasses that he doesn't remove.
Just after 1 p.m., everyone settles into black chairs arranged around the perimeter of the stage. The thrum of conversation rises and falls. There's just one person missing from the scene. Where's the director? Where is Kevin Moriarty? Most of the actors haven't seen him since auditions in May, and this is his first time directing in Dallas. They're excited but aren't sure what to expect. Will he be stern and tyrannical, as some previous directors at this theater have been? Or will he be the artistic mentor who inspires and excites?
Suddenly he's there, bounding down the aisle and up three steps to the stage. Dressed in faded jeans, an untucked navy polo and one of his 10 pairs of Nikes, Moriarty, 42 and a slim 5-foot-6, looks like a young and wiry grad student. Working the crowd, Moriarty shakes hands and shares hugs with actors and staffers. After acknowledging several DTC benefactors and board members, he welcomes the five actors and singer-dancers cast out of New York City and the five students handpicked from Southern Methodist University's drama department.
Moriarty plants himself in front of a set of drums on the stage—they belong to Oso Closo, the five-member Denton rock band chosen to play for Tommy. "This is going to be a great adventure," he says, rubbing his palms together. "We're going to have great fun."
With all eyes now on him, Moriarty begins to talk about Tommy. Right away it's clear that low-key isn't his style, and this will be no droning director chat. "This is the dawn of an amazing new day!" he says. "We're putting a rock band center stage at Kalita Humphreys...to scare the audience!"
This draws laughs, even from the fustier benefactors.
"We've made a very concerted effort to put together a group that will define this Tommy," Moriarty says. "This is like a piece of Shakespeare, a piece of Gershwin. People have a history and connection with it. This really, really, really is not going to be your grandmother's musical...Dear God in heaven, not to be boring in the theater is the hardest thing. Better they stand up and storm out than they fall asleep. We should get some rock happening on this stage!"
Applause. The younger actors, perhaps relieved to see that their director is as pumped as they are, applaud loudest.
For the next 65 minutes, Moriarty performs a riveting one-man show, rhapsodizing, soliloquizing and filibustering on The Who, the what and the wherefore of British rock music. He describes the genesis of Tommy and his own six-month "odyssey of falling in love" with the piece he calls "a statement on child abuse, war and misbegotten religions." He takes side trips into the spiritual philosophy of the silent Indian mystic Meher Baba, who is credited as Townshend's inspiration for Tommy's title character, and weaves in anecdotes about the complicated relationships of Townshend and bandmates Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle.
Moriarty, who founded the MFA directing program at Brown University, acts as lecturer, evangelist and critic. Ken Russell's 1975 movie version of Tommy? Absurdly awful, he says. The 1993 Broadway extravaganza adapted by Townshend and director Des McAnuff? Better. (It's the Townshend-McAnuff libretto that DTC is using.)