“Treat this show like a concert,” Carl Lehman ’17 said in the Black Box Theater at the beginning of last Saturday’s stage performance of Tommy, a 1969 album by popular rock band The Who. “That means dancing, cheering for your friends, and taking videos for Snapchat if you want.”
Last weekend’s concept concert showcased what a group of students could pull off without the help of faculty or the restrictions of traditional theater to guide them. The result of the cast and crew’s meticulous work was a high-energy performance that carried out its goal of focusing on the music. Olivia Lindsay ’19 added a rebellious flair and free spirit to the four characters she played, captivating the audience with “Fiddle About.” George Costanzo ’19, who served as associate producer and singer, shattered the traditional gender roles of the show with his performance of “Acid Queen,” sung in previous renditions by a woman, which he belted with confidence and grit. Costanzo interacted with not only the band but also the audience, passing out fake tabs of acid at the end of the song. A projection of animations by Oscar Dow ’19 and Neuwirth added a visually appealing touch to the show, despite appearing in only five of the 18 songs. “Everyone had their own thing to bring to the table, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near what it looked like if we had been missing anyone,” Costanzo said.
Tommy has seen many unique renditions, including a Broadway musical, an opera and a film. The album itself tells an abstract story, following the life of a boy who is born deaf and dumb but is cured after several years of tribulation among his family.
“My dad listened to The Who a lot when I was a kid,” Eva Neuwirth ’19, who produced and directed the show, said. The idea to perform selections from the album came to her when the song “Pinball Wizard” came on while she was on the treadmill at the Kenyon Athletic Center in September. Neuwirth pitched the idea to Jeremy Stern ’19, musical director and guitarist for the show, soon afterwards. In the months that followed, the two students recruited friends and ran formal auditions for the independent production. The cast featured a band whose members played guitar, drums, bass and piano. In addition to the instrumentalists singing, three students covered the bulk of the vocals.
Stern created the covers for each song and then taught them to the cast by ear without the aid of sheet music. “It was kind of bizarre at the beginning,” Stern said. “I was kind of just testing ideas out on how to teach everyone the music.” Stern recalled the process as stressful but a lot of fun. Neuwirth, Stern, and associate director and production stage manager Talia Light Rake ’20 chose to simplify the plotline, which in the 1975 film adaptation follows the evolution of Tommy into a cult leader. “What was at the center of this was the music, not the narrative,” Neuwirth said. “The point is whatever these songs make you feel while you’re watching them.”
The creative liberties the students chose to take also made the production financially plausible. The $300 they acquired through Fun Funds, a Business and Finance Committee program to fund student-run activities on campus, did not give them the means of purchasing the rights to the show as performed on Broadway. The crew rented microphones and amps from WKCO, but the band members used their own instruments to accommodate for their low budget.
Light Rake said that as an independent production, Tommy received the lowest priority for selecting a performance venue. The students had hoped to book the Hill Theater but ultimately had to make do with the Black Box after a process last December that Neuwirth described as “a weird Hunger Games … where every theater group sends a representative and we were the straggly onlookers,” she said.
The tight space and limited budget resulted in technical challenges and limited seating for the audience, which reached over 80 people each night, according to Light Rake and Neuwirth. But the cast and crew ultimately overcame these issues, resolving challenges with their sound system and perfecting their blocking between their second to last rehearsal and Saturday night’s show.
“People consistently assumed that we wouldn’t have our s— together, and I think that fueled us to be more organized,” Neuwirth said.
The high demand for tickets and observable enthusiasm among students for Tommy demonstrated that creating a successful independent production is possible at Kenyon. Neuwirth hopes that Tommy helped bridge what she sees as a gap between the musical, dramatic and visual arts at Kenyon. “I think there are a lot of good things about the theater situation here, but one thing that I wish there was more of is experimental theater that is different from your classic drama,” she said.