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Where Minds Can’t Usually Go: Pete Townshend’s Tommy Comes to SUNY New Paltzby Jay Blotcher

Forty years on, it appears that the world can still learn life lessons from a boy who is deaf, dumb and blind.

But then the musical Tommy, hubristically billed as the world’s first rock opera, always has had more on its mind than the intention to bruise eardrums. As envisioned by The Who’s Pete Townshend—and first committed to vinyl in 1969—Tommy is a big, brash allegory about false messiahs, featuring a score of dazzling musical complexity.

After several re-imaginings—including the audacious, deliciously bloated 1975 Ken Russell film—Tommy made it to Broadway in 1993. The collaboration between Townshend (music-lyrics) and Des McAnuff (book) ran for two years and 899 performances. Tommy garnered five Tony Awards, transforming a tuneful, if strident, cautionary tale into a streamlined crowd-pleaser.

But when the show is staged at SUNY New Paltz in May, director Jack Wade plans to divest Townshend’s dystopic vision of any residual cuddliness incurred during its Broadway run. He aims to restore the elements that Tommy shares with more conventional operas: soaring emotions and inevitable tragedy. “A great deal of this play is a dark play,” said Wade, a veteran lighting and scenic designer, who joined the faculty in 1999. “And it’s a creepy play.”

Wade has seen several theatrical stagings of the musical that allowed the propulsive score to dominate the story, which takes place between World War II and 1963 around London. Those versions, he said, “were too much like a rock concert—too much rock, maybe not enough opera.” While a seven-piece orchestra will perform the mammoth score, it will not subsume the story.

Working closely with costume designer Brittany Merola, set designer Ken Goldstein and, especially, musical director Stephen Kitsakos, Wade plans to emphasize the high-pitched dramatics of the saga, grace notes that include murder, sexual abuse, avarice and pinball games. Tommy has less in common with its successors like Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, Wade pointed out, than it does with 19th-century ancestors like Richard Wagner’s clanging, relentless Ring of the Nibelungen cycle.

In fact, Wade is shaping the production according to the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates variously as a “total work of art,” “universal artwork,” or a “synthesis of the arts.” First introduced in an 1827 essay by German writer and philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff, Gesamtkunstwerk appeared again in print in 1849, when Wagner cited it as an apogee of aesthetic ideals.

“It’s not just about the singers and the performers, but it’s the total graphic nature of the piece,” Wade said, “where the scenic design and the lighting … are equally part of the entire flow of the piece.” Translation: all of the elements of the show play off one another for optimum juxtaposition and dissonant harmony. In Tommy, this heady mix of concepts simply means that actor movement, dance steps and set design alike mesh in seamless rhythm for dramatic visual effect. As the sets glide quickly across the Wade stage, they will echo the primacy and fluidity of modern dance.

“There’s been a lot of discussion between the designers and choreographer and musical director to ensure that things flow together.” One slight miscalculation would have the same result of a male dancer arriving tardily at center stage to catch his prima donna in mid-flight. To convey the anxiety within the sensory-deprived boy, Wade’s crew shot nearly six hours of video capturing moving Mylar images which conjure the mirror that becomes Tommy’s only solace.

“This [musical] has taken me longer to block than anything I’ve ever done because of that,” Wade said.

Rock opera, history lesson, or psychodrama, Tommy ultimately pivots on the rogue’s gallery of characters that Townshend created. As the lead, Kevin Berger is a third-year transfer student able to handle both the emotional rigors and musical duties of the role. The Theatre Arts major previous appeared in the SUNY production of Twelfth Night.

As Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Walker, Jenna Kate Karn must play a huge maw of neediness and self-absorption, alternately neglecting him out of shame and coddling him with an almost incestuous fervor. Freshman Theatre Arts major, Karn also competes on the school equestrian team. Michael Blais, a first-year student currently studying theatre performance, plays Captain Walker, the war casualty who returns home unexpectedly. He plans to study audio engineering while pursuing a musical career. Stephen Kalogeras plays oleaginous Uncle Ernie, a reprehensible character with an impish streak. A freshman Psychology major with a Theatre Arts minor, Kalogeras belongs to the campus a cappella group, Male Call. As the ultra-sadistic Cousin Kevin, Ian Whitt celebrates his third SUNY Mainstage production with Tommy. Previous SUNY performances include Twelfth Night, Red Masquerade, Feed Me All Night Long, Fresh Dance, and Fresh Act.

Since opera has the freedom to present concepts writ large, Townshend and McAnuff’s Tommy takes the opportunity to telegraph ideas with force over subtlety. Seen through present-day eyes, Tommy easily be a narcissistic reality TV star or a fallen evangelist.

“This particular play captures the idea of what happens in this age of instant celebrity,” Wade said. In the musical’s central coup de theatre, Tommy escapes his psychosomatic prison and is devoured by a fawning public. They feed his ego to a fearsome level, only to revolt when he has gained too much power.

In the Broadway dramatization of Townshend’s tale, instances of bilious black comedy are often swapped for grand slapstick. But Townshend and McAnuff went too far in rejiggering the finale. On the 1969 Decca album, Tommy ended his journey a broken man, abandoned by his followers. In the 1975 movie, director Ken Russell gave the faux savior a resurrection, when a shirtless, well-built Roger Daltrey greets the rising sun at film’s end. However, in its journey from the La Jolla Playhouse in California to the St. James Theatre on Broadway, Tommy regretably offers a saccharine eleventh hour change of heart. The newly-minted guru suddenly curbs his egotism and begs forgiveness of his wronged family and inner circle. Critics balked at the dubious narrative detour; Wade and his crew are “still struggling” with it.

“I think it was a way to get to a sense of hope at the end of the play,” Wade said. “I think it was probably a device to satisfy the audience, as much as anything else.”

Because Tommy is a SUNY New Paltz production, students will not only learn to build sets, stitch together costumes and project their voices, they also receive a crash course in World War II British history. A faculty scholar has explained to the cast the show’s socio-cultural context, recounting an era in which every day life ranged from greengrocer rationing to sleepovers in the tube stations as German bombs rained down.

“Where it could have just been a rock and roll concert,” Wade said, “[Tommy has] become this great educational vehicle for all of them.”

The SUNY New Paltz School of Fine & Performing Arts presents The Who’s Tommy, at McKenna Theatre, SUNY New Paltz campus, May 5, 6, 7, at 8 PM, May 1 & 8 at 2 PM. Box Office: 845.257.3880. See for information.

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