Robert Wood set up the experience of seeing Venture Theatre’s new production “The Who’s Tommy” when he described it at opening night as feeling “like you’re in a music video.”
As the director of the rock opera, Wood resisted what must have been a strong tug to turn the production into a psychedelic romp ala Day-Glo and leather fringe. Instead, it’s a carefully crafted story with amazing rock ballads that stays true to the 1950s, which is when the story was written and most of it is set. It takes a peek into the ‘60s, but doesn’t do the full-blown 1960s as in “Hair,” which was produced by Venture two years ago. The costumes are vintage 1950s with guys in cuffed jeans and the ladies in high-waisted dresses with polka dots and paisleys.
In the first two minutes of “Tommy,” there is a marriage, sex and a baby. That’s a lot of territory to cover fast. Sixty seconds later, two soldiers pull Mr. Walker (Sam Herbert) off to war. Baby Tommy appears about the same time Walker is declared missing in action.
Cut to the 21st birthday of Mrs. Walker (Vanessa Dent), who is celebrating with her new beau (Zak Kreiter) and now 4-year-old son, played by Kievan McCave. In walks Mr. Walker.
What young Tommy witnesses that night in the apartment takes him into a dark place that we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Tommy becomes the “deaf, dumb blind kid.”
One of the most successful scenes in the show has a herky jerky line of doctors and specialists marching around Tommy like robots or zombies trying to fix him. The scene looks right out of the movie set to Beatles music, “Across the Universe.” It was very well executed with Kreiter taking on yet another role in the show as a doctor. Later he explodes on stage wearing stilts as the Pinball Wizard for his big number.
From there, the show soars into surreal territory. Christie Anderson plays a seductive Acid Queen as she cranks out her siren song. Keli Rae Mitchell as the Hawker takes the show to new heights vocally, especially when she sings with music director Timber Venard, who plays keyboard throughout. The duets between Dent and Herbert as the Walkers show off two voices well suited for harmonizing together. They pour out their frustration and their love for the damaged son in song.
By the time the full wonder of Travis Kuehn’s classically trained voice as the teenage Tommy comes out, people in the audience were clapping along and bouncing in their seats. When Kuehn hits some of the most familiar songs in the show, “See Me, Feel Me” then rocks out to “I’m Free,” Kuehn doesn’t need a pair of stilts because vocally he is larger than life and the guy everyone on stage wants to be.
“The Who’s Tommy” continues this weekend and Sept. 28 and 29. Call Venture Theatre at 591-9535 for show times or tickets.