In 1969, The Who released its most ambitious and misunderstood album, Tommy. Billed as the first rock opera, it included elements of musical theater fused with the band’s brand of strutting British rock. Yet despite becoming a worldwide sensation spawning multiple hit singles and a Broadway play, subsequent theatrical interpretations have mostly emphasized the pop sensibilities of Tommy, transforming it into something akin to an Andrew Lloyd Webber piece.
At Camarillo’s Rock City Studios, they’re scraping off the pop veneer and, bit by bit, returning it to its rock ’n’ roll roots. The Blackstone Music Entertainment production, helmed by Becca Cornelius, aims to inject a new vitality into the piece by stripping it down to its core essence: rock concert quality surround-sound, anthemic singles, memorable riffs and a taut storyline. In short, it’s how Pete Townsend would want it staged.
The foundation for the presentation is a slew of veteran musicians, culled from the best local bands, ready to make their mark on, and jam to, The Who’s masterpiece. “This isn’t a remake of an old vintage movie version of the story,” said co-owner of Rock City Studios, Jan Peyton. “Each actor and musician will interpret the song and story with their own personal flair.” Showcasing their styles will be Aaron Johnson from the indie band Le Meu Le Purr, Justin Dempsey from the rock band The Return, and band director Doug Peyton, of the power-punk outfit Halifax.
One of the hardest things the musicians had to adjust to in the rehearsal process was the strict leadership by the production team. The process, while allowing creative freedom, reins in the more elaborate experiments by the musicians and refines them into tight segments that will resonate true to the original album.
A delicate balance persisted between learning and relearning the classic tracks, while improvising and experimenting with different flourishes to suit the musicians’ eclectic styles. “I listened to the Tommy album over and over while playing drums to get the feel right,” said Justin Dempsey, who’s performing as drummer Keith Moon. “Finding a middle ground between improvising and sticking to the written music was the most difficult part.”
While the production as a whole certainly benefits from the musicians’ talents, the artists hope that the increased publicity nudges their day bands into the spotlight. “It’s important to help support and promote the local music scene,” said Peyton. “We have a lot of great talent on display.”
There will be plenty of opportunity for local artists to showcase themselves in 2009. Tommy is only the first in a series of shows that will incorporate their talents throughout the year, including a planned Halloween spectacular and holiday show.
But despite the efforts of performers, it can be argued that the real star of the production will be the pristine quadraphonic surround-sound that will treat the limited audiences (only 85 guests per showing) and tickle their ears with all the highs and lows meant for a true live rendition. “One reason why Tommy was such an amazing production in the first place was that it was one of the first productions done in quadraphonic sound,” elaborated Peyton. “It will make show-goers’ hair stand up.” It’s a throwback to the days where sound quality mattered — well before the time of the tinny-sounding MP3.”
But despite the top-notch production, the draw for audiences remains straightforward. Simply put, “They’ll be entertained,” said director Cornelius. And why not? The story is engrossing, the music timeless and the performances invigorating.
Here’s to hoping they play it like it’s 1969.
Tommy, Aug. 14 through Aug.23. Rock City Studios, 2258 Pickwick Drive, Camarillo. 383-3555.