By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Maybe the blue-hairs in the audience didn't see it coming. Or, then again, maybe they did—it's not as if The Who's Tommy maintains a reputation as a production tailor-made for the older theatergoing crowd.
So, surely, the seemingly sedate audience attending last Saturday night's preview performance of the Dallas Theater Center's season opener had to be prepared for such atypical theater fare as a few blasts from a semi-automatic, right?
Um...not really, it turns out.
When the first gunfire of Tommy comes, the audience is taken aback by its sheer volume and subsequently jumps in their seats with surprise.
It's not as though they weren't warned. In the weeks leading up to his Dallas directorial debut, Dallas Theater Center's artistic director Kevin Moriarty has done plenty, both in the press and in DTC literature, to prepare the theatergoers of the region for a different kind of stage experience. But talk, they say, is cheap—people can ignore talk. Gunfire, of course, is more difficult to pass over. And with the sudden flash and bang of the gunshot, it becomes clear that Moriarty wasn't spewing the same old bullshit promise of something new for a new generation of theatergoers.
The immediate thought: OK, I'm impressed. Now what?
Suddenly, the audience isn't just watching—it's involved. And having already been teased (and perhaps lulled into comfort) by the familiar overture of the show's opening, the audience falls to the mercy of the players ambling about the stage.
In the press materials provided before this performance, Moriarty—who spent last season, his first in the region, choosing to dissect Dallas theatrical productions rather than dive blindly into directing them—carefully warns that "Almost everyone thinks they know Tommy." If only through the sheer endurance of The Who's "Pinball Wizard" on even today's classic-rock radio station playlists, his comment is, by all means, valid. And while DTC's production doesn't necessarily re-imagine the rock opera (which is to say that the story and songs are unchanged), it certainly repackages Tommy, presenting it as a dizzying spectacle and shaking up the biases of those who believe theatergoing is a high-brow experience and see opera—rock or otherwise—as pretentious and inaccessible.
While the story itself is still a whirlwind—father dies in war; boy is born; mother remarries; father returns; new husband is murdered; boy sees it all; parents cover it up; boy is traumatized; parents are overwhelmed; boy is abused; boy stays in shell; boy comes out of shell; boy becomes hero; boy sparks a movement; boy is murdered—this production, like other Tommys before it, refuses to restrict its pace for the audience's immediate consumption and understanding. But it offers a far more pleasing package than most would anticipate.
Moriarty's vision of the tale deserves praise. In his attempt to crack the Tommy plot, he's taken a contemporary approach to this show. The psychedelic sense of audacity and shock is gone, replaced by a bombastic and vivacious music video-like package.
Scenic designer Beowulf Borrit's gritty stage set-up, which boasts three stories of catwalks, a truly panoramic width (at the stage's farthest reaches, the actors nearly walk among the audience) and even a few water-filled crevices on the stage's main floor (whose dramatic reflections and splashes only add to the spectacle), lays the base for the visual onslaught. But it's choreographer Joel Ferrell's Cats-meets-You Got Served contortions and flaunts that confirm the aesthetic: The resulting visuals are far more "Thriller" than A Chorus Line, and set to the sounds of The Who, the audience is served a complete sensory feast.
But, as should be expected in a show written by legendary rock guitarist Pete Townshend, no aspect of Tommy is more compelling than the audible—which brings us to the true stars of the show: Oso Closo. The Denton-based rock quintet's affinity for Townshend-inspired riffs is instantly recognizable on the band's debut full-length CD release, 2007's Rest, which the band is smartly remixing and re-releasing in conjunction with its performance as the in-house orchestra at this show. Only, in this production, Oso Closo's players serve as far more than some stage pit-ridden performers. Their home base throughout DTC's Tommy is right in the middle of its expansive set. Actors weave through and around their setup, largely ignoring the band's presence. And, likewise, as if ghosts, the band members meander about the stage, too, interrupting and blocking the intended paths of the constantly-in-motion actors, serving as both stage props and a visual conscience and constraint placed upon the characters. When a character cries, guitarist Chris McQueen kneels beside them, his guitar play replacing their inaudible wails. When any of the three Tommy characters seen throughout the show wants to express themselves and can't, lead singer Adrian Hulet's vocals do the trick. The characters may be oblivious to their company, but for the audience, their job is to offer narration and plot progression—an objective masterfully accomplished by a group of musicians with no known prior theater experience.
By pairing Oso Closo's performance with the ensemble players' singing and dancing, Tommy offers almost too many visuals to take in at once. And yet this constant motion, through juxtaposition, only enhances the static posing of the cast's most prominent players. As Heath L. Williams' four-year-old Tommy sits cross-legged and still at the front and center of the stage, his back turned to the audience, there is a sense that the crowd is observing this display through Tommy—even though the audience knows him well as a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" naïve to all that glimmers around him.
Nehal Joshi's Captain Walker and Betsy Wolfe's Mrs. Walker more than capably share insight into the guilt and burden of parents who know that they are to blame for their son's condition. Gregory Lush and Liz Mikel, as Uncle Ernie and Gypsy, respectively, offer compelling, scene-stealing performances (although, granted, for vastly differing reasons and parts). And by the time his full-grown Tommy hits the stage, the audience is so accustomed to a silent lead character, it's impossible to not be enthralled by Cedric Neal's captivating and exuberant take on his character's final charismatic and tragic turn.
Where Tommy's inherently bewildering storyline lulls, DTC's players (from Oso Closo on down to the vibrant ensemble) gladly entertain in its stead. That seems Moriarty's goal with Tommy: This isn't a show where audiences will leave the theater discussing the moral plights of the characters; instead, it's a visual and aural spectacle, a performance meant to highlight not what theater is known to be, but rather to revamp its viewers' perceptions of what theater can be—and, similarly, what can happen when theater is used to its full capability.
While this production might not overcome the frenzied flaws of Tommy, it certainly overcomes any assumed flaws of the Dallas Theater Center's recent past, flaunting an exhibit that not only aims for attention but demands it. If Moriarty's mission was to present a piece that could draw in audiences from all the varied bases of curious theatergoers and intrigued local music fans—as well as the inquisitive who fall into neither of those first two lumps—he can consider his objective complete.
And when they get there, yes, they'll find exactly what Moriarty promised with this show: a production for a broader audience to marvel at; an experience few would anticipate; and, most important, a show whose lofty promises are absolutely, positively not just the same old bullshit.