Human drama March 25, 2004
Director gives ‘Tommy’ more structure


There will be no baked beans or chocolate syrup pouring from a TV in Derry Dalby’s version of “The Who’s Tommy.”

“You won’t have to bring any plastic sheeting,” says the director of Springfield Theatre Centre’s production.

Ann-Margret’s weird wade through the aforementioned food was one of many surreal moments in director Ken Russell’s 1975 movie version of The Who’s 1969 concept album.

To keep the visual oomph, Dalby will use rock-concert lights, slide projection, vintage pinball machines and a two-way mirror in the production. But while the strange food bath has been removed, he says something important was added for the show’s Broadway run - a solid structure.

"Broadway audiences want a beginning, middle and end," Dalby says.

"This version, for me, really offers an end to Tommy's story. It's very human as opposed to just a psychedelic movie. There are very human situations and family problems that have to be worked through."

"Tommy" was adapted for the stage in 1993 by Des McAnuff and Who guitarist Pete Townshend, who wrote or co-wrote nearly all the songs on the original album. The story has some semi-autobiographical material for Townshend, whose parents' separation as a child forced his mother to take a truck-driving job to make ends meet.

After witnessing his father, Captain Walker (John O'Connor), commit murder, the title character enters a catatonic state rendering him deaf, dumb and blind. After atrocities at the hands of Cousin Kevin (John Sivak), Uncle Ernie (Andy VanDeVoort) and The Acid Queen (Janet Carr), Tommy is miraculously cured. The result is a cult of celebrity and Tommy's exploitation by Ernie as he attempts to forge his new life.

"I see him as an equation of Elvis," Dalby says. "Women wanted him and guys wanted to be him. He's like a messiah figure, and he has to come to grips with what happens because of that."

Bailey Smith and Allen Rosenberger play the 4- and 10-year-old versions of Tommy, and the lead adult version is played by Ralph Shank.

"I needed someone who had the power to sing very high, and Ralph may be singing higher than what's written at some points," Dalby says.

Shank's rock 'n' roll background also will allow him to play the guitar live onstage, and he said he has often tried to mimic falsetto-singing styles he's heard from contemporary artists.

"I listen to a lot of Radiohead and Jeff Buckley," Shank says. "Their sound is what I'm trying to recreate. And the lyrics are so emotional. The Who did something very well, combining those with the great melodies."

Dalby says the audience is in for a treat, with Carr playing the over-the-top prostitute played by Tina Turner in the film.

"I like that this character is really scary and dangerous," says Carr, also a singer with the local band F5. "She's a little on the wild side and 'The Acid Queen' is such an uptempo song. I want it to be exciting, get them going a little bit."

VanDeVoort says he's one of just a few cast members who can remember hearing "Tommy" songs on the radio and, as Tommy's most nefarious nemesis, he relishes the opportunity to stretch as an actor.

"My last role was as John Hancock, one of the most respected men in American history, and now I'm playing a child molester," VanDeVoort says.

"These are the kind of shifts in roles I'm looking for. I can really dig into the weirdness and see how far I can push it. Derry has told me it's creepy, but it's as far as he wants me to go."

VanDeVoort likens this presentation of "Tommy" to a music video and believes it will have greater accessibility to a younger audience.

"When you watch something on MTV, you don't question that it's happening, it's just happening," he says.

"This is like that. It's a ride, and you're going on the ride - an amazing journey."

March 27, 2004