‘Tommy’ scores with strong vocals, bold staging
Robert Wood set up the experience of seeing Venture Theatre’s new production “The Who’s Tommy” when he described it at opening night as feeling “like you’re in a music video.”
As the director of the rock opera, Wood resisted what must have been a strong tug to turn the production into a psychedelic romp ala Day-Glo and leather fringe. Instead, it’s a carefully crafted story with amazing rock ballads that stays true to the 1950s, which is when the story was written and most of it is set. It takes a peek into the ‘60s, but doesn’t do the full-blown 1960s as in “Hair,” which was produced by Venture two years ago. The costumes are vintage 1950s with guys in cuffed jeans and the ladies in high-waisted dresses with polka dots and paisleys.
In the first two minutes of “Tommy,” there is a marriage, sex and a baby. That’s a lot of territory to cover fast. Sixty seconds later, two soldiers pull Mr. Walker (Sam Herbert) off to war. Baby Tommy appears about the same time Walker is declared missing in action.
Cut to the 21st birthday of Mrs. Walker (Vanessa Dent), who is celebrating with her new beau (Zak Kreiter) and now 4-year-old son, played by Kievan McCave. In walks Mr. Walker.
What young Tommy witnesses that night in the apartment takes him into a dark place that we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Tommy becomes the “deaf, dumb blind kid.”
One of the most successful scenes in the show has a herky jerky line of doctors and specialists marching around Tommy like robots or zombies trying to fix him. The scene looks right out of the movie set to Beatles music, “Across the Universe.” It was very well executed with Kreiter taking on yet another role in the show as a doctor. Later he explodes on stage wearing stilts as the Pinball Wizard for his big number.
From there, the show soars into surreal territory. Christie Anderson plays a seductive Acid Queen as she cranks out her siren song. Keli Rae Mitchell as the Hawker takes the show to new heights vocally, especially when she sings with music director Timber Venard, who plays keyboard throughout. The duets between Dent and Herbert as the Walkers show off two voices well suited for harmonizing together. They pour out their frustration and their love for the damaged son in song.
By the time the full wonder of Travis Kuehn’s classically trained voice as the teenage Tommy comes out, people in the audience were clapping along and bouncing in their seats. When Kuehn hits some of the most familiar songs in the show, “See Me, Feel Me” then rocks out to “I’m Free,” Kuehn doesn’t need a pair of stilts because vocally he is larger than life and the guy everyone on stage wants to be.
“The Who’s Tommy” continues this weekend and Sept. 28 and 29. Call Venture Theatre at 591-9535 for show times or tickets.
VENTURE THEATRE AND THE WHO’S TOMMY
Tommy is a very personal tale.
Very personal indeed.
Producing Artistic Director, Robert Brian Wood, has had The Who’s Tommy integrated into his soul from the beginning of his existence. Reminiscing about running through the fields of his childhood country home, Robert remembers being able to hear the music of this play turned up full blast from his dad’s hi-fi. There are themes throughout the work that touch on some his own experiences. Many of the props and toys, such as the trike, are his. The triumph that comes towards the end leaves him in tears every time. I’d say it’s pretty rad he gets to produce and direct something so cathartic and so very groovy.
And he does it with finesse and great skill.
And lucky for you and me, Venture always ensures some big laughs!!
If you don’t know who The Who is- I will share a brief history so you can become cool. As per good old Wikipedia: “The Who are an English rock band formed in 1964 by singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. They became known for energetic live performances which often included instrument destruction. Released in 1969, Tommy is the fourth album by English rock band The Who. A double album telling a loose story about a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” who becomes the leader of a messianic movement, Tommy was the first musical work to be billed overtly as a rock opera. In 1998 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value”. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.”
I cannot help but gush about our local talent. Billings is actually loaded with very talented individuals and we are fortunate to have outlets such as community theater to showcase it. The four leads played by Travis Kuehn (older Tommy), Kievan McCave (younger Tommy), Vanessa Dent (Mrs. Walker) and Sam Herbert (Mr. Walker) expertly took me on the journey of Tommy. Mrs. and Mr. Walker’s singing was rich and bold and passion filled. Young Tommy wowed me with the emotion he conveyed while mostly being relegated to a catatonic state throughout the work. Older Tommy’s performance radiated all over the stage. The chorus powerfully moved me through one emotion after another.
And the Acid Queen (Christie Anderson) gave me some insight to what dropping acid just might be like…
The musicians were highly visible, of course, as they were integral to the production. They did The Who justice and rocked the audience out!
The costuming, created by Zachary Sheets and assisted by Kim Welch, has it’s own fun story. Zach took up sewing by default a few years ago. Unfortunately, the costumer fell and could not continue her work during a production. Fortunately Mr. Sheets decided to give designing and sewing costumes a big whirl. He found he had an exceptional knack for it. Having studied architecture, he approached the clothing from that basis and carefully considered each actors shape and skin tone. You will notice (when you attend the musical) that everyone’s clothes fit really well. This current production had roots in the 50′s and 60′s. He knew that the undergarments would be key to the structural shape of the costumes and so everyone was wearing authentic 50′s underwear and it totally worked! Most of the dresses were made from old bed sheets, tablecloths and curtains. I let it be known I would love to have a Zachary Sheets original dress made for me someday and dang it if he didn’t say yes!!
You will absolutely enjoy Tommy. It gets a little bawdy and a bit wild and you wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s possible you will find a girl in a poofy skirted dress in your lap or pulled out of your seat to dance in front of the stage. Someone might even swig your beer. It’s part of the VERY fun ride that will rescue you from sitting in front of your flat screen again next weekend. Or even tomorrow- there are still some tickets available so move towards your phone and dial up Venture Theatre!!
Sunday Sept. 23, 2012 2:00PM
Friday Sept. 28, 2012 8:00PM
Saturday Sept. 29, 2012 8:00PM
Sunday Sept. 30, 2012 2:00PM
2317 Montana Avenue Billings MT 59101
Jodie Tenicin Smith
SEE IT, FEEL IT
Venture Theatre takes trip back to iconic work of psychedelic era with ‘The Who’s Tommy’
At just 11, Kieven McCave is taking on the big role of portraying the “deaf, dumb blind kid’’ in “The Who’s Tommy” at Venture Theatre. It opens Sept. 14.
The challenge for McCave is to play this boy who suffers from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a murder. Without breaking character, he must allow the adult actors to taunt and prod him in an attempt to communicate.
Young Tommy’s only ally seems to be his adult self, played by Travis Kuehn, a 21-year-old Rocky Mountain College vocal major.
When Kuehn, who has performed in several Rimrock Opera Company productions, croons the opening lines to the song “See Me, Feel Me,” it is wrenching. He is vocalizing what young Tommy has been trying to tell everyone since he was 5.
The Who’s Pete Townshend composed the music and lyrics for the rock opera, treading new waters for the British rock musician and the world as he paved the way for the new rock opera genre, including “Hair,” which Venture staged in 2010.
“My parents had this album, and I remember hearing it pretty much from birth,” said Kuehn, who grew up in Glendive. “The ‘See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me’ song is kind of the ‘Tommy’ motif.”
The production is being directed by Venture’s artistic director Robert Wood, one of six that he’s directing this season.
“It’s what I live for. If I could give up everything and just direct shows like this, I would be content. This is the most important part of my job,” Wood said.
The action begins in the 1940s during World War II when young Tommy’s father goes off to war. It continues through the 1950s and ‘60s, entering the psychedelic world of DayGlo and LSD.
“It’s about freedom but also about individual freedom. When Tommy breaks out of his shackles and sings ‘I’m Free,’ we all feel liberated,” Wood said.
Three pinball machines, including two antique models, will be used in the show. The third will be built 7 feet high and large enough to hold the adult Tommy in his triumphant scene.
Christie Anderson plays the Acid Queen, a character that she described as half shaman, half seductress. During rehearsal earlier this week, she belted out her big solo with plenty of swagger and clarity. Tina Turner played the role in the movie version and at some live shows.
Another Rocky vocal major, Keli Rhea Mitchell, plays the Hawker in the production, singing a smoky siren song as an introduction to the Acid Queen. In this role, Mitchell performs in an alto range, a change for her since she sang such a high soprano aria in “Sweeney Todd” last season at Venture.
Zak Kreiter sings the most well-known song in the production, the rock anthem “Pinball Wizard.” Elton John played Kreiter’s character in the movie version, wearing 10-inch-tall platform shoes. Kreiter plans to perform his song on stilts, something he’s used to when he helps his dad in drywall.
“I love that song. When I found out Venture was doing this show, I told Robert, ‘Please let me sing that.’ It’s rock ‘n’ roll, so it comes easier for me.”