Flashing pinball machines, costumes straight out of the 1960s and soaring riffs on the guitar transport audiences of The Who’s rock opera, “Tommy,” to the golden age of English rock ‘n’ roll.
The musical shares its name with The Who’s 1969 album, “Tommy,” and is set to be performed by the Short North Stage, a local professional theater organization housed at Columbus’ Garden Theater, Thursday through April 27.
“It sort of fuses two things together … This love of this music and this rock album that a lot of people grew up with,” said Edward Carignan, the director of this Short North Stage production.
Carignan, who spent 12 years in New York City as a professional performer, said he has directed two performances of “Tommy” in the past and thought the show would fit well into the Short North Stage’s 2013-14 season.
Created by The Who guitarist Pete Townshend and featuring the music of the band, “Tommy” is the life story of Tommy Walker, a young man struggling with the aftermath of witnessing a horrific act of violence as a child. This experience leaves Tommy deaf, dumb and blind. He is seen as a catatonic boy misunderstood by his relatives and community.
Yet Tommy finds his place in life once he begins playing pinball. Despite his inability to express himself emotionally or verbally, Tommy rises to fame as a “pinball wizard” and accepts his role as a cult hero.
“The first act focuses on how a boy with catatonia who has these special needs sort of fits into a community that doesn’t know how to accept him,” Carignan said. “And in the second act, it examines the responsibilities of rock stars.”
The musical is underscored by several familiar songs from The Who’s albums, including the 1969 single “Pinball Wizard.”
Invoking the musical style of the English rock band is an integral part of successfully performing the show, but also one of the biggest challenges for musicians, said Tim Valentine, the musical director for “Tommy.”
“The challenge was really staying true to The Who and making sure our band was a rock band that was really going to produce a show where the audience felt like they were in a rock band environment, even though they are in a theater,” Valentine said.
The band performing the music for the show consists of eight musicians, two of whom are Ohio State students.
Valentine, who previously ran the OSU Arts Scholars Program for four years and now serves as the alumni program manager in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he enjoys incorporating OSU students into his ensemble whenever possible.
“Half of my job is finding the right people,” Valentine said. “I make sure to hire really good musicians … really passionate musicians that care a lot about performing to their best, so I’m lucky that I work at Ohio State and get to work with students that really do care about performing to their best.”
Aside from those in the band, other OSU students are participating in the upcoming show, a trend that Rick Gore, executive producer for “Tommy” and a founder of the theater company, and Carignan said they hope continues in the future.
“We are increasingly connecting with OSU students, both as attendees and as participants at the theater,” Gore said. “We’re a little away from the (OSU) campus, but not that far.”
Tommy Batchelor, a first-year in dance at OSU, is performing in the show as a featured dancer.
Batchelor said he performed in the Tony Award-winning musical “Billy Elliot” on Broadway and in the first national tour when he was 13.
He came to OSU to study dance and became involved in the Short North Stage after auditioning for the cast earlier this year, he said.
“I had heard quite a bit of the music from the show and knew a bit of the story, and figured it would be a very interesting production to be a part of,” Batchelor said in an email.
At the beginning of the second act, Batchelor has a dance solo during which he portrays a pinball. The solo choreography is challenging, but the experience of performing as a featured dancer is ultimately rewarding, he said.
“Since we have a fairly small cast, we all have to play several different roles,” Batchelor said. “The most difficult one for me is definitely the pinball. The dance solo is very difficult to perform, but it is tons of fun.”
Valentine said the technical rigor of both the dancing and the music are two aspects of the show that he thinks audiences will appreciate.
“This is the biggest dance show that we’ve done at the Short North Stage,” he said. “The dancing and the rock music … I think those are the two big reasons to come see the show.”
Carignan agreed and hopes the audience will be pleased with the show.
“(‘Tommy’) tends to be something very enjoyable and visceral,” he said. “(The show) has a lot of artistic value.”
Carignan said he enjoys “Tommy” because of its appeal to multiple generations and interests.
“(‘Tommy’) is always a resounding success because of its broad audience base,” he said. “It’s just such a fun show … a complex show, but a really fun show to do and it’s always done very well for theaters.”
In addition to directing “Tommy,” Carignan said he also designed the costumes and choreographed the show, which features 18 actors.
“(‘Tommy’) is a very well-constructed story and the storytelling using (The Who’s) album is very creative and interesting,” he said. “Using a lot of choreography and costumes … just overall it is very fun to watch.”
Tickets are available on the Short North Stage website and range from $25 to $40.
Students can receive a $10 discount by entering “student” in the online coupon box and showing proof of student ID.
The Garden Theater is located at 1187 N. High St.