INDIANAPOLIS — Recreating the iconic rock opera “Tommy” on stage at Footlite Musicals is no easy task, but New Palestine resident and director Maria Matters, along with vocal director Michael Davis and band director Damon Clevenger, have put their hearts and souls into doing just that.
“Tommy,” written by The Who member Pete Townshend, recounts the tale of a young boy’s journey from pain to triumph after witnessing the accidental murder of his mother’s lover by his father. He is traumatized into catatonia, and as he grows up he suffers abuse at the hands of his sadistic relatives and neighbors. As a teenager, however, Tommy is discovered to have an uncanny knack for playing pinball and becomes an international superstar.
Matters, who considers Footlite her theater home, typically directs a show there every couple of years. Her last production was “Big River” during the 2011-12 season. For the 2014-15 season, she wanted to choose something that would resonate with her generation. Inspiration came during lunch with her son at the Tie-Dye Grill, a ‘60s-themed restaurant on North Shadeland in Indianapolis.
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“The opening chords of ‘Pinball Wizard’ (from “Tommy”) came on, and I thought, ‘… This is the show I have to do,’” Matters said.
The Who’s original concept album of “Tommy” came out in 1969. It was made into the movie starring a who’s-who of big names in the ‘70s, including Elton John, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson, Roger Daltry and Tina Turner, among others; but it didn’t become a stage play until 1992.
According to Matters, the play has some minor plot changes from the movie, and the time period changes from World War I to World War II, but Matters assures all the memorable songs made the transfer from album to movie to stage. They include “Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,” and a new song, “I Believe My Own Eyes,” written by Townshend for the stage play.
One of the challenges of presenting a rock opera on stage is that character development has to be shown through choreography and song. Matters said she has done considerable research for the production, reading everything she could about Townshend.
“A lot of the events in the play, some of the incidents and the bullying, come from Townshend’s personal experiences. Reading his biography helped me get to the heart of what motivated him to write what he did,” Matters said.
If not for that, she said, she would not have known that “I Believe My Own Eyes” was about the break-up of the marriage of the couple in the show, which changed her approach to that number.
Uncle Ernie, played by Mark Peed, is one of the less savory characters in the show. Once Uncle Ernie realizes Tommy is incapacitated, he takes advantage of him in a scene that takes place behind a couch.
“It’s done as tastefully as we could,” Peed said, “but Uncle Ernie is a creepy character, and the audience knows what’s happening.”
During the preview performance in front of a test audience, Peed wasn’t prepared the less-than-enthusiastic applause at his curtain call.
“It was kind of quiet. There was no whooping and hollering,” Peed said.
Joi Blalock experienced the same kind of reception as the Acid Queen.
“I played the Sour Kangaroo in Seussical,” Blalock said, “but it’s different in a children’s show. You don’t want to scar the baby.”
When she first started getting a grasp of her character, and her interactions with Tommy, she was shocked.
“OK, what did I sign up for?” Blalock said.
Still, she has enjoyed the process. “She’s definitely fun to play,” Blalock said.
Matters credits a talented and dedicated production team for helping put the show together. Ed Trout, known at Footlite for directing the youth theater programs in the summer, designed the set concept, which takes the form of a giant pinball machine.
The band that accompanies the stage performers is 8 feet in the air where the score count for the pinball machine would be, Matters said.
Choreographers and sisters Trish and Amy Roberds have worked overtime with the dance-heavy production in an effort to create choreography that moves the plot along, she added.
“They totally ‘get’ musical theater,” Matters said.
Performances of “Tommy” can be seen at Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama St. in Indianapolis, May 7 to 9 and May 14 to 17. Thursday shows are at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Contact footlite.org to make reservations.