‘Tommy’ turns arts center into visual, audio feast

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Rock opera highlights music, choreography

By Emile Hallez

Violent strobes of color, energized dance and a backdrop of renowned psychedelic rock saturate the senses in the Littleton Town Hall Arts Center’s production of “Tommy,” a nearly overwhelming contrast to the title character’s catatonic state.

The play, based on The Who’s iconic album of the same name, takes the audience through the metamorphosis of a troubled young man. After witnessing his father kill his mother’s lover, the young boy, presumed deaf, dumb and blind, faces horrific abuse from family members and peers until he inexplicably ascends to a god-like pinball savant.

“I want them to leave with an energy and excitement and an overall sense that they experienced something that they couldn’t experience elsewhere,” director and choreographer Nick Sugar said. “It’s a concept piece. Most musicals have a book that you follow with a script. All of the storyline is done in pictures,” he added of Tommy’s unique production. “It’s like a picture book that you’re just flipping through. … You just keep wanting to turn the page to see what happens.”

The production leans equally on its visual and musical elements. A five-piece band guides the cast through a static, unyielding dance progression, and without a single word of spoken dialogue, characters call upon the limits of their vocal cords to sing through the demanding script. Meanwhile, images and video project onto three large screens and glow from seven LCD monitors.

“We’ve probably put in about 150 hours of rehearsal time,” Sugar said of the five weeks the cast spent preparing. “It’s all technical, from the music, to the lights, to the video, to the costume changes. There are so many technical aspects of the show that have to come together at the same moments.”

For bassist Rick Thompson, a Littleton resident and Heritage High School grad, the music itself is not necessarily demanding, but the incorporation of all elements creates a challenge for the entire team.

“I’ve never seen this big of a video production. It’s bigger visually than I’ve ever seen here,” Thompson said. “If I was running the (sound) board, I’d be sweating bullets.”

South Jeffco resident Rob Riney, who plays the short part of “the lover,” among other roles, said that the production is physically demanding.

“It’s all sung. It’s a very unique show,” Riney said. “It’s not your typical musical show like ‘Oklahoma.’ It’s more rock ’n’ roll. It’s in your face. … That is exhausting. And that we’re changing costumes and outfits within seconds.”

Maximizing use of the relatively small venue is a reality any production team faces. Characters walk through aisles, and entering the stage through an opposite side requires going down a flight of stairs, running through the lobby and back up to the theater.

“We’re literally sprinting through the lobby of this theater to get to the other side — and getting there and having breath left to sing. … I’m also the oldest member of this cast, which also makes it challenging,” said resident Keegan Flaugh, 37, who plays a number of doctors and specialists who try to “cure” both young and grown-up Tommy.

Though Sugar’s choreography challenges the actors and actresses, the visual product is pleasing. Adult Tommy, dressed fully in white and played by Russell Mernagh, jumps atop a rolling pinball machine as idolizing followers dance and revel below him.

“His choreography is very challenging in that it’s very stylized dance. It’s very appealing, but it’s very difficult to do,” he said, adding that most of the cast juggles multiple roles.

“Aside from the few main characters, everyone gets a chance to play a plethora of different characters, which is really interesting,” said Flaugh, who has so far performed in three of his 12 musical roles at the Town Hall Arts Center this year, including “Evita” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” “Everyone should come see it.”


Playing from April 6 to May 6

Littleton Town Hall Arts Center

2450 W. Main St.; 303-794-2787

Tickets: $24 to $38; student and senior discounts available

Visit www.townhallartscenter.com