Christ the Servant is rockin' out.
That's because that deaf, dumb and blind kid is in the house -- sanctuary, actually -- of the Henderson prayer hall/makeshift rehearsal hall.
"From the third bar, everybody," music director Roger Butterley (on his fifth "Tommy" production, so you can trust the dude) tells the cast gathered before the mics to sing out familiar refrains.
"Tommy, can you hear me? ... See me, feel me, touch me, heal me."
No pulpit pinball machine where the blank-eyed boy "ain't got no distractions, can't hear those buzzers and bells, don't see lights a-flashin', plays by sense of smell, always gets a replay, never tilts at all"? Fine. In the 21st century, shouldn't he sure play a mean Xbox instead?
"It's 'Tommy' for the Green Day generation," says Troy Heard, director of "The Who's Tommy in Concert," a hybrid of the 1969 concept album and 1993 Broadway reinvention opening Tuesday at Green Valley Ranch Resort's Ovation Room, pumped out by RagTag Entertainment.
Everyone's at church for rehearsal. ... Almost everyone. "Unfortunately," Heard notes, "the Acid Queen is at Green Valley Ranch doing Sondheim." Probably best to keep the drug-peddling prostitute with the dominatrixy fashion sense out of the sanctuary (praise be, baby).
What will the cross-breeding of a landmark rock opera and a theater incarnation some critics said had its emotional edginess sanded and smoothed into Broadway acceptability look like in its tale of a catatonic youth who becomes a messianic guru? (We won't even factor in the garish 1975 movie, essentially an overblown music video stoned on peyote.)
"It's the Broadway score, stripped of the trappings, the huge sets, taken down to a heightened concert, with ladders, staircases that roll around and we're not keeping it in the 1940s time period dictated by the play," Heard says. "It's also multimedia projections throughout."
Such as? "The visual aesthetics are junior-high punk, the titles scrawled on a notebook, like a seventh-grader who fell in love with the album. We're doing a cool thing with a number called 'Sparks' as young Tommy over the course of six years is taken through a battery of tests. It's going to be shot as a point of view with the audience as Tommy. We're shooting it right now at Emergency Arts."
Retaining the Great White Way score, however -- though still stuffed with such familiar characters as Mr. and Mrs. Walker (Tommy's parental units), Mom's lover, evil Uncle Ernie and cousin Kevin -- might not satisfy "Tommy" true-hearts. Narrative U-turns away from the original story -- even with composer Pete Townshend's participation -- left some critics carping at the '93 opening.
"Their changes turn a blast of spiritual yearning, confusion and rebellion into a pat on the head for nesters and couch potatoes," wrote New York Times critic Jon Pareles. "In the 1969 'Tommy,' (he) regains his senses, then becomes a star. The acclaim induces messianic pretensions and he cracks. ... He establishes a tyrannical cult, forcing would-be followers at 'Tommy's Holiday Camp' to play sensory-deprivation pinball. Tommy had more in common with David Koresh or Charles Manson than he does with the sympathetic character on Broadway."
Perhaps, but insisting his version "keeps the rock edge without alienating" and is the equivalent of PG-13 (OK, he concedes, maybe "PG-Severe" as he puts it, with the Acid Queen trying to heal Tommy with drugs), it was the Broadway show that zapped him into a fan.
"I saw it in 1994, the first Broadway show I'd ever seen," Heard recalls. "I had second-row seats and Sally Simpson (the character of a Tommy fan) came down, shaking her ass. She was right in front of me, the first time I'd seen an actor come off the stage. It stuck with me."
Taking his own whack at it, Heard has assembled a cast that's all aboard the "Tommy" train. One can't even sleep.
"I can't take naps before I go to work at night because the songs are going over and over in my head," says Brandon Nix, aka Capt. Walker. "It's contagious." Portraying his missus, Sandra Huntsman relates to Momma W. "Just because her whole world is that of a mother and I'm a mother of four children," she says. (Two of the munchkins prance around as we speak.) "I know what it's like to care about them so much it hurts." (We'll assume the blond looker, unlike her fictional counterpart, never took an extramarital lover. ... Well, let's not go there.)
Playing Tommy at 18 -- after 5-year-old Melanie Radan handles the role for age 4 and 12-year-old Jessica Ruettiger steps in for Tommy at 10 -- Jason Andino nails the hero's affliction succinctly. "Catatonia sucks," says 29-year-old Andino, blessed with an ability we middle-agers detest: looking a decade-plus younger than his age. "I've been reading up on catatonia and schizophrenia. It's a debilitating thing, but it's fascinating the way the mind protects itself from pain."
Acting that, Ruettiger says, requires an unnatural knack for stillness. "In the first act I'm dumb and blind and I have to watch myself," she says. "Sometimes I react, but I can't. When they're throwing me around, it's hard not to react to them."
Having The Who on his music stand with his six-piece band of blasters, Butterley IDs why "Tommy" is so satisfying to musical theater musicians with rock chops. "(The score) was created by people who play those instruments, and when you do a lot of music theater that's in a rock style, it's not always written that well because it's the piano player who wrote the score and they've transferred that to a rock band," Butterley says. "This is the opposite, a rock band translated to a music theater show."
Generations too young and tender to recall the 1969 "Tommy" still groove, he adds -- especially to its signature song. "The end of Act I is 'Pinball Wizard.' You start that and people go 'Hoooo!' The younger generation knows it from Guitar Hero and video games like that."
Tonight, the pinball savant's got Christ the Servant rockin' out. "Put it out there, own it!" Heard shouts to his cast as they belt it out in midrock. To paraphrase:
Ever since we were young kids, we've played the silver ball. From Vegas up to Reno, we must've played them all. But we ain't seen nothing like him in any amusement hall.
That deaf, dumb and blind kid? Sure plays a mean Xbox. ... Sorry. Pinball.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.