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For Pete's Sake

The Pacific Players delve deep into Townshend's meaning and method for their production of 'Tommy'

By Rebecca Patt

The Pacific Players want to make Pete Townshend proud. And they've got so much confidence in their production of his rock opera Tommy that they're even going to invite him to see it. Considering he'll be in the area on opening night, there's even a chance that he might.

Fresh from their recent production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, most of the group has had some experience with 1960s musicals. Director Greg Harbert believes that Santa Cruz is ready for Tommy, given how recent audiences at the Rio Theatre were gung-ho for performances of The White Album and Rubber Revolver. The group will perform Tommy at the Rio Theatre three times over the next two weekends plus one show at a nightclub in San Francisco.

With the emphasis foremost on the music, a full rock band will bring classic Tommy hits like "Pinball Wizard," "Amazing Journey" and "Go to the Mirror" to life, and the show will delve into a range of provocative themes including the quests for identity, belonging and spiritual enlightenment.

Harbert says that they are striving for a clear narrative that answers any questions audiences might have from past versions, such as why the central character Tommy is deaf, dumb and blind. And he took the time to answer Metro Santa Cruz's questions, as well.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: What is your quest?

GREG HARBERT: Our quest, and meaning the whole cast and the creative crew behind Tommy, was to really create the quintessential version of the show. There are several versions that have been created. On May 16, 1969, the vinyl came out, and not long after that there was a symphonic version that came out, there was a ballet that was created, then a film was made in '75, and in the '90s out came the Broadway musical. And we've pored over each of these versions. Each one is different. Each one took the original vinyl and threw different takes on it, and yet we found that none of them exactly seemed to create a narrative structure that seemed clear. So when we were creating the libretto for our version, we took those versions and literally hodgepodged bits and pieces from all of them, rearranged the order of the songs and did all kinds of work to try to create a narrative structure that seemed to really have a flow with the characters and the story line that clearly created a story about Tommy himself, and then we read all these interviews with Pete Townshend who wrote most of it, and tried to get his take on what he was trying to create.

What do you think Pete Townshend would say about your version?

Well, we've talked a lot about that because he'll be almost in town. The Who will be at the Shoreline on our opening night, so we are going to send them a telegram and invite them over. That's just a symbolic gesture, probably, but we decided what the heck, we'll do that, because we do believe that he'll see it. Sometimes an artist learns a lot from their work and other people's interpretation and how they see it, and I think he would be pleased. I think he would be excited and glad that we worked so hard to try to develop the narrative and tried so hard not to think, 'What do we think?' you know; we tried to really dive into all of his comments, and I think in the end he would really find it interesting at worst and maybe hopefully love it at best.

Did you try to emulate the Who when you chose the band?

Tommy is interesting because the music is like a character; it's like an

invisible character. We have the dances trying to represent that, and when we start with the overture we have nothing else happening on stage, it's just rock & roll. It starts off like a rock concert, and that's basically saying this is about the music, as if we are not going to do anything else, but let you sit down and listen to this incredible, incredible rock & roll, brilliant stuff. We are not going to have the band necessarily completely emulate the Who because a lot of the best musicians are not necessarily people who think of themselves as theatrical performers, so we have to kind of meet that halfway. So they are off to the side when they perform. I'm going to try to get them to do an exciting visual performance as much as they can. I'm going to try to get them to emulate aspects of the Who, and I've talked with the musical director Ed [Levy] and he seems to really understand that, and so whenever we are talking about the music, I'm making sure that he's being really conscientious that when it's a rock & roll moment, it's going to be a rock & roll moment. When we need an outrageous guitar lead, it's going to be an outrageous guitar lead.

Now for the existential question: Who is Tommy?

Tommy is really all of us. Tommy is what would happen if we were raised in a world without prejudice, if we were not brainwashed and programmed and patterned into a certain set of belief structures, and I think this is Pete talking here. We all carry the essence of the messiah, and whoever you want to call the messiah, whoever you want to call the savior, we all have that inside of us. Tommy was his vehicle for trying to express that, and it turns out that Tommy really is all of us on our amazing journeys, and in a sense Tommy really becomes every person like in the old medieval plays the characters were just called Everyman.

Tommy will be performed on Aug. 7, 13 and 14 at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15-$20. There will also be one show in San Francisco on Aug. 12, 8pm, at 12 Galaxies, Mission St. at 22nd, $8-$10. Tickets are available at Streetlight Records in downtown Santa Cruz and also online at virtuous.com.

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From the August 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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