Greg Geer Keeps His Eye on the Ball as Director of The Who’s Tommy at Bristol Theatre Company

 

headshotThe Tony Award-winning musical The Who’s Tommy is based on the classic rock opera about the deaf, dumb and blind boy who “sure plays a mean pinball.” Safe to say that most people would be able to recognize many of the show’s classic rock hits, among them “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

As a child of the ’70s myself, only two things come to mind when someone mentions the name Tommy: playing The Who’s epic 1969 double album on my ultra-cool portable record player and eventually being traumatized by the sight of Ann-Margret rolling around in a sea of baked beans at a midnight screening of the insane Ken Russell movie adaptation of the rock opera.

I spoke to Bristol Theatre Company’s Greg Geer about the challenges in directing their latest production that opens Friday (Nov 9), the long-running popularity of Tommy, and of course, my trepidation of flashbacks to the movie.

Marilyn Busch: I gotta’ ask, are there baked beans in the show?

Greg Geer: Only at the cast party. Which is why wearing white is mandatory.

MB: That’s a relief. So, what do you think it is about Tommy that still holds our interest?

42987159_2023637674361601_7702789954341961728_nGG: Primarily it’s the music of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon: beautiful, horrifying, intricate and raw all at once. It’s also what Tommy (the character) represents: spiritual enlightenment, perseverance, wisdom gained through painful experience and the discovery of oneself. These themes resonate with me, having recently passed the half-century mark myself.

MB: Oh right! Your director’s note for the program mentions that the character of Tommy turns 50 this year!

GG: I think he looks pretty good for his age. Roger Daltrey said recently that to his mind, Tommy was truly “born” in 1968 when they first went into the studio.

MB: I hear that while there are plot differences between the album, the film and the play, the general storyline is largely the same. What would you say to someone like me, who only knows the 1970s versions, to bring us up to speed with the Broadway version?

GG: Funny you should say that.  Pete Townshend has said that the plot of the stage show, which he helped develop, is closer in his mind to the intent of the album. The album is pretty light on details and was always left up to the mind of the listener. If you are only familiar with the movie, then come into the show knowing that the plot will be similar, but song order has been shifted, characters have been added and removed, and others have been more fully fleshed out.  Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie are not stereotypical caricatures. Also, I guess that, unlike the movie, the consumption of certain chemical enhancers is not a prerequisite for watching the stage show.

MB: Does this show have a traditional Broadway orchestration or more of a rock score?

GG: I am sure rock musicians would tell you it tends more toward Broadway, but I think it leans the other way. The score is more abstract, there are longer musical interludes, and the energy coming out of the band is a not the typical horns and strings of a simple combo, but a raging fire in tribute to the rock gods.

MB: What was your biggest musical hurdle to overcome?

GG: After a long casting process, I found a large set of talented people with amazing voices. The biggest musical hurdle for me was finding the right role to fit the right voice. While many people could have switched between roles, it was a little like a puzzle trying to find the best combination. After listening to the cast with the band this week, I think we made the right decisions.

MB: What excited you most when you started working on this show?

GG: I saw the show in New York on my honeymoon 25 years ago. I’ve always been a fan of The Who, so to hear that music brought to life and not watered down was just amazing. It’s been on my bucket list since then and I never really figured I would get a chance to do it.  What excited me most was the challenge of doing justice to the music and spectacle that the production requires while spending time on the deeper meanings.

MB: Did you come into this with preconceptions about how it needed to be done?

GG: Yes, I had some general ideas about staging and more specific thoughts around character moments. Ultimately, though, the show found its own shape as the process went on and the cast and designers added their own ideas.

MB: Tell me about the design and artistic team  you’ve assembled for the show.

GG: I have to start with Diane Campagna, who did not hold back with the choreography. It’s incredible. She really pushed the cast and they rose to the challenge. Alex Tirrell is our music director. I was lucky to get him as he’s so busy (because he’s so good). He’s done great work with the cast and the band. Oh! The band! Alex has assembled a kick-ass pit including Buddy Procopio on drums, Chris Caduto on bass, Ben Tirrell and Matt Lombardi on guitar and John Brennan on keyboard. They are really looking forward to getting their Who on.

Bristol Theatre Company’s Abbi-Jo Francis  has done one heck of a job costuming a large cast with a show that spans the ’40s through the ’60s, and Dena Vezina has assembled some amazing looking props (wait until you see the special medical chair). New to the group, but not new to me, are my friends Dean Palmer (lights) and Joe O’Dea (set) who are two long-time friends and gifted designers. The look of this show has dropped the jaw of everyone who has seen it.

MB: Does the resurgence of pinball in today’s hipster culture play into this at all?

GG: If the fine collection of artisanal cheeses in the lobby are any indication, then I would say yes.

MB: Speaking of hipsters, did you know that there’s a Who’s Tommy pinball machine based on the original Broadway production? I checked the likely places around RI — Shelter Arcade Bar and Free Play Arcade — and am sad to report they do not have it.

GG: There was also a Captain Fantastic Pinball machine based on Elton John’s character in the movie. I couldn’t find that one either. I was a little disappointed as I already have the giant shoes.

The Who’s Tommy takes the stage November 9-11 & 15-17, 2018 at Bristol Theatre Company, with performances at the Reynolds Arts & Wellness Center, 235 High St, Bristol.

 Directed by Greg Geer and featuring choreography by Diane Campagna,  musical direction by Alex Tirrell, set design by Joe O’Dea, lighting design by Dean Palmer, costume design by Abbi-Jo Francis, and properties designed by Dena Vezina. The cast includes: Mike Daniels as Tommy, Julian Trilling  as Mrs. Walker, Kevin Silva as Captain Walker, Mark Carter as Uncle Ernie, Zachary Smallwood as Cousin Kevin Katie Silva as The Gypsy (Acid Queen.) Young actors Myles Napolitano & Logan Cabral play Tommy at different ages and the ensemble features Bill Bullard, Fay Bullard, Hawker Cassidy, Jodi Cusack, Brian Francis, C.J. Gerhard, Marcianne Kristof, Kara Rocha, John Sheppard, Dylan J. Soares, Leslie Racine Vasquez, Olivia Vezina, Taylor Vogl and Joe Wilkicki. Musicians Buddy Procopio on drums, Chris Caduto on bass, Ben Tirrell and Matt Lombardi on guitar, and John Brennan on keyboard make up the pit band.

 

Tickets are available online at www.bristoltheatrecompany.org for $20 adults and $17 students and seniors. Admission is also available at the door for $25. If you haven’t already gathered, the show does contain adult content that the theater advises may not be suitable for children under 12.

 

 

 

 

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