Dare 2 Defy rocks the Schuster Center with The Who’s “Tommy”

Dare 2 Defy’s cast rehearsing for “Tommy” (L-R) Darren Brown, Naman Clark, Melissa Hall, Angie Thacker, Brennan Paulin, Paul Hahn, Chavin Medina, Garret Young, Samantha Creech, Tyler Smith, Jamal Cann, Natalie Sander, Jesse Trieger.  Photo: Brett Norgaard

By Dr. Jill Summerville

Though numerous jukebox  musicals are staged on Broadway, “Tommy” by the renowned rock group The Who, remains one of the only rock operas. The 1969 concept album inspired a 1975 movie and a 1993 stage musical (which included plot changes). Unlike most jubilant jukebox musicals, “Tommy” has a tormented protagonist. After witnessing a violent murder in his own home he’s told he never saw or heard, Tommy’s senses shut down and he lives as a deaf, mute, and blind person throughout his childhood. The abuse the physically vulnerable Tommy suffers from his “caretakers” is troubling for the audience – cigarette burns on his arms, lengthy showers in freezing water, and statutory rape by the smoldering Acid Queen (the sultry Melissa Hall) – but this musical isn’t psychological realism.

Considered an opera because nearly all of its dialogue is sung, “Tommy,” not unlike any successful concept album, is more effective at evoking emotion than following an ideological arc.

Dare 2 Defy consistently attracts actors who are gifted singers. The rock music in “Tommy” is vocally demanding, with complicated harmonizing, abrupt pitch changes, and emotional expressiveness no Auto Tuner equals. Not only does the cast meet the technical and emotional demands of the soundtrack, both while singing and while playing instruments, all of the actors obviously relish the challenge. The performances are so energetic that the audience participates even when the script doesn’t demand it; a woman waived money at Tommy’s charming, charlatan Uncle Ernie (the winsome Darren Brown) when he was selling Tommy-themed merchandise after his nephew overcame his psychological trauma and became a fetishized rock star and spiritual guru. The plot isn’t linear, but simple, effective costume changes and the cast’s commitment to building character relationships with clear, concrete actions make it easy to follow.

The characters are captivating, but they aren’t complex. After all, rock songs are too short to introduce nuanced characters. How much do we really know about Tommy and Gina from Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” or John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane”? The emotional complexity of “Tommy” comes from the captivated audience members who know the lyrics to every song and hum all the hooks before the band counts in, not from the interactions between the characters. Perhaps this is why the actors seem most comfortable when they’re singing, interacting like dedicated musicians in a raucous, transcendent jam session. Their stage presence is much less commanding when the music fades. The blocking is unmotivated, with the notable exceptions of the blocking around the mirror – also a “frame of mind” providing the perspective of the character or characters standing in it, since the “mirror” contains no glass – and the arresting physical choices of the three actors playing the different ages of Tommy (the ethereal Paul Hahn, the arresting Chavin Medina, and the alluring Garrett Young). The British accents – which are only justified by one friend cruelly mocking that Tommy could be the prime minister, because mastering pinball is as impressive as any politician’s accomplishments – are regionally varied and inconsistent. Characters’ dilemmas are sung about rather than shown. Tommy’s parents share a duet about how Tommy’s physical challenges strain their marriage, and Tommy sings about his childhood dreams of normalcy in the musical’s closing number. [In the movie, he urges his followers to live as deaf, mute, and blind, so they can clearly decide what is important in their lives. In the musical, he invites his followers into his family home, refuses to become a spiritual guru, and claims he has always wanted to live “normally,” as his followers do.]

If inattention to these details doesn’t detract from the pleasure of this production, it’s because a narrative isn’t what Tommy (the protagonist or the musical) needs to pass on. Like a family story repeated to several generations, the rock opera’s depth comes from its contextualized cultural significance. An audience member recalls where she was when she first heard the concept album or watched the movie and the member of The Who on whom she had a crush. Further, like anyone revisiting a teenage memory (including Tommy himself), she now sees her experiences were far more difficult than she realized. This production has local significance as well; after the show, audience members were sharing their memories of past Dare 2 Defy productions and discussing where “Tommy” fit into the company’s history with those who were new to either Dayton or its theatre scene.

Like all treasured memories, “Tommy” reminds us of moments when we were lost, moments when we thought we had all of the answers we thought we would need in our lives, and moments when we decided to become someone worth facing in the mirror. There’s no particular scene or line that encapsulates this struggle. Instead, a human life is stretched across a soundscape we enjoy traveling, one that we always wish we could travel longer.

Dare 2 Defy will perform “Tommy” in the Mathile Theatre at Schuster Performing Arts Center January 19 and 20 at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information please visit  D2Defy.com

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