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‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me’

Tommy (Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky) falls under the spell of the Acid Queen (Malia Abayon) in the UC Davis department of theater and dance's production of "The Who's Tommy," opening Thursday and playing through May 29 in the Main Theatre at Wright Hall. Jeff Perry/Courtesy photo

By
May 14, 2011 |

Check it out

What: “The Who’s Tommy”

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, May 19-21 and 26-28; 2 p.m. Sundays, May 22 and 29

Where: Main Theatre, Wright Hall, UC Davis

Tickets: $18/$22 general; $15/$20 students, children and seniors; http://www.mondaviarts.org of (530) 754-2787

Rating: PG-13

“The Who’s Tommy” lights up the Main Theatre stage at UC Davis starting Thursday and continuing through Sunday, May 29. Directed by Granada Artist-in-Residence Mindy Cooper, with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, the hit musical is based on The Who’s 1969 double album rock opera “Tommy.” It won five Tony Awards on Broadway.

The show features the story of Tommy, an English boy who becomes deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing a murder, and later rises to fame as a pinball wizard. It includes the classic rock hits “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Cooper says the groundbreaking musical paved the way for Broadway shows like “American Idiot” and “Rent.” “It came about at a time when Broadway was very decadent, which is why ‘Tommy’ is such a fantastic show with so many (multimedia and scenic) elements,” she says.

Cooper was involved in the original Broadway production, running the dance auditions under choreographer Wayne Cilento. She oversaw 1,500 auditions per week and notes that Townshend was nervous about adding dance to his rock and roll concept. Another bit of show trivia Cooper revealed about Townshend: “He added the pinball element early on in his writing process simply to please a London music critic who was a pinball fanatic, in hopes of a good review!”

Cooper says her 1993 “Tommy” Broadway experience has not influenced her direction of the current show. She brings fresh eyes to the project and approaches her devised choreography through much improvisation. Cooper has worked with the UCD graduate and undergraduate performers to find their strengths and has sculpted the dance routines from this.

Michael Davison, a master of fine arts candidate, who plays the irrepressible (and reprehensible) Uncle Ernie, says, “Mindy has a very sharp eye for the images she creates on stage and is able to use her resources (the performers) to their best advantage to create what she is looking for — meaning she is able to choreograph and stage a show that would appear to be at the Broadway level that she is accustomed to working, but with enough modification so that the university cast can actually produce the results.”

“The Who’s Tommy” is an opera above all else, Cooper says.

“It has great musicality and only 20 lines of dialogue, whereas standard musicals have at least three pages of dialogue between songs,” she explains.

Orchestrating the operatic themes has been most challenging for the director, creating a heightened reality with actors who are not all deeply musically trained. Still, Cooper has been able to interpret the scope and scale of “Tommy” into a production with great spectacle, fun, and dimension.

Lead actress Alison Sundstrom elaborates, “It’s like a musical and a rock concert are colliding. It creates this epic event where you have all the music and the thrill and awe of a rock concert with the story of a musical. It jumps from song to song to song. So the pace of the show is much faster than any other I’ve ever done.

“That means all the set, lighting, and costume changes are much faster and since the show takes place over such a long period of time, there are also many more of them. There is never a still moment on stage or off.”

Unusual design and production elements complement the drama, rock music and lyrics of “Tommy.” A video prologue explains the back-story of the play, a coordinated blend of live-action and film that tells the story of Tommy’s parents — how they meet, fall in love and how Tommy’s father must go off to war.

As for her set design, Cooper says “ ‘Tommy’ is essentially a rock and roll show set on a pinball machine. The stage can be very, very alive and yet simple at the same time.”

Costume design by is by Kara Branch, a master of fine arts candidate. She’s particularly proud of her Acid Queen costume for Malia Abayon.

“Watching the creation of the costume helped me better understand the Acid Queen,” Abayon says. “There are so many elements to the piece; there is red cloth covered by the sheer black material, a reflective pattern, sleeves and tattooed tights, ropes and wires, lace-up boots, and lastly my wild hair. Mindy really wanted to stick with the rock star theme of the show.”

Ultimately the rock opera is about Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind pinball phenomenon who breaks free from his emotional trauma and becomes a world hero.

Tommy will be portrayed by two child actors, Ryley Steggall and Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky, and undergraduate Matthew Dunivan. Dunivan is a graduating dramatic art major who starred in Cooper’s fall 2010 UCD production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He most recently played the lead role in UCD theater and dance department’s winter production, “Come Hell and High Water,” directed by Granada Artist-in-Residence Dominique Serrand.

A Broadway veteran for more than 25 years, Cooper began her career as a performer dancing in the companies of Twyla Tharp Dance, The Feld Ballet, The Kansas City Ballet, and Thingseziseem Dance Theatre. She then went on to perform on Broadway in the original cast revival of “Chicago,” the original cast of “Titanic,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” “Song & Dance” and “Tenderloin.”

Her directorial credits are lengthy. Her local theatrical work has won 10 Bay Area Theater Critics Awards, including 2009 Best Director of a Musical and 2009 Best Musical. She has been honored as UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence twice before this production.

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