Press release

Rock Opera The Who’s Tommy Opens at UC Davis!

The UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance presents The Who’s Tommy directed by Granada Artist-in-Residence Mindy Cooper with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend.  This hit musical, winner of five Tony Awards, is based on The Who’s 1969 double album rock opera Tommy. The famous show revolves around young English Tommy who becomes deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing a murder as a boy, and later rises to fame as a pinball wizard.It includes the classic rock hits “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me.” The Who’s Tommy opens on Thursday, May 19, and continues through Sunday, May 29, at Main Theatre, Wright Hall, UC Davis.

The Who’s Tommy initiated Broadway into the rock era in 1993. Director and Broadway veteran Mindy Cooper explains that the groundbreaking musicalpaved the way for shows like American Idiot and Rent. “It came about at a time when Broadway was very decadent, which is why Tommy is such a fantastic show with so many [multimedia and scenic] elements.”

Cooper was involved in the original Broadway production running the dance auditions under choreographer Wayne Cilento. She oversaw 1500 auditions per week and notes that Pete Townshend was very nervous regarding the addition of dance to his rock and roll concept. Another bit of show trivia Cooper revealed about Townshend: “He added the pinball element early on in his writing process simply to please a London music critic who was a pinball fanatic in hopes of a good review!”

Cooper claims her 1993 Tommy Broadway experience has not influenced her direction of the current show. She brings fresh eyes to the project and approaches her devised choreography through much improvisation. Cooper has worked with the UC Davis graduate and undergraduate performers to find their strengths and has sculpted the dance routines from this.

Master of Fine Arts acting candidate Michael Davison who plays the irrepressible (and reprehensible) Uncle Ernie remarks on working  with Cooper, “Mindy has a very sharp eye for the images she creates on stage and is able to use her resources (the performers) to their best advantage to create what she is looking for — meaning she is able to choreograph and stage a show that would appear to be at the Broadway level that she is accustomed to working, but with enough modification so that the university cast can actually produce the results.”

“The Who’s Tommy is an opera above all else, says Cooper. “It has great musicality and only 20 lines of dialogue, whereas standard musicals have at least three pages of dialogue between songs.” Orchestrating the operatic themes has been most challenging for the director, creating a heightened reality with actors who are not all deeply musically trained.  Still, Cooper has been able to interpret the scope and scale of Tommy into a production with great spectacle, fun, and dimension. Lead actress Alison Sundstrom elaborates, “It’s like a musical and a rock concert are colliding.  It creates this epic event where you have all the music and the thrill and awe of a rock concert with the story of a musical. It jumps from song to song to song. So the pace of the show is much faster than any other I’ve ever done. That means all the set, lighting, and costume changes are much faster and since the show takes place over such a long period of time there are also many more of them. There is never a still moment on stage or off.”

Music director Graham Sobelman leads professional musicians to carry out the operatic score while much research has been conducted by the actors to interpret the dark core drama surrounding Tommy’s withdrawal from the world and his cathartic rise to super-hero. Performer Alison Sundstrom explains, “My character Mrs. Walker, Tommy’s mother, has an amazing journey because you see her growth and development from a girl of 17 all the way to a 37 year-old wife and mother who has suffered through crushing disappointments in life. It’s exciting for me because she is one of the only characters who make this leap from adolescence to adulthood.  The dramaturgical work that has gone into all of our parts has been really helpful. We have to not only understand the span of the show from the 1940’s through the 60’s but also the eras in which our characters were born and grew up because it informs so much of what our character’s personality, morals, and priorities are.”

Complementing the drama, rock music and lyrics of Tommy, the show has many remarkable design and production elements. The first of these is a video prologue that explains the entire back-story of the play. Cooper describes the video as a theatrical conceit revealing parts of the plot that would be difficult to stage otherwise.

Video designer and English doctoral candidate Collin Davey notes, “We’ve created a coordinated blend of live-action and film that tells the story of Tommy’s parents — how they meet, fall in love, and how Tommy’s father must go off to war.  My work on the film portion was designed to tell a love story, set the stage for 1940’s war-torn London, dovetail the film with action appearing on stage, and keep it all consistent with Mindy’s greater vision for the show – all in five minutes.”

Performer Chris McCoy, a second-year doctoral candidate in performance studies, says, “While video is often used in theatre today, the shoots for this show have been highly involved, much like working in film.  We shot at the air force museum in Sacramento as well as in studio.  These experiences provide another dimension to working on the show that one rarely gets in presenting traditional musical theatre. They also allowed me to develop a back-story about my character, Tommy’s father Captain Walker, which I would not have otherwise been able to form.” 

As for her set design, Cooper remarks that “Tommy is essentially a rock and roll show set on a pin ball machine. The stage can be very, very alive and yet simple at the same time.” The show contains over 14 different sets by scenic designer and Master of Fine Arts candidate Kourtney Lampedecchio who has crafted a stunning performance space for the cast to work in.

Another interesting and important element is the costume design by Master of Fine Arts candidate Kara Branch. A particularly remarkable costume is that of the Acid Queen portrayed by undergraduate Malia Abayon. Abayon comments, “Watching the creation of the costume helped me better understand the Acid Queen. The design changed so much from what it had been originally, which was a dress. Now, it’s a leotard. There are so many elements to the piece; there is red cloth covered by the sheer black material, a reflective pattern, sleeves and tattooed tights, ropes and wires, lace-up boots, and lastly my wild hair. Mindy really wanted to stick with the rock star theme of the show which is one of the reasons it turned into a leotard. They built this costume from scratch and it has really helped me embody the character. There have been moments when they literally had to sew me into the piece.”

Ultimately the rock opera is about Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind pinball phenomenon who breaks free from his emotional trauma and becomes a world hero. The role will be portrayed by two child actors, Ryley Steggall and Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky, and undergraduate Matthew Dunivan. Dunivan is a graduating Dramatic Art major who starred in Mindy Cooper’s fall 2010 UC Davis production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Dunivan most recently played the lead role in UC Davis Theatre and Dance Department’s winter production Come Hell and High Water, directed by Granada Artist-in-Residence Dominique Serrand.

Mindy Cooper Biography

A Broadway veteran for over 25 years, Mindy Cooper began her career as a performer dancing in the companies of Twyla Tharp Dance, The Feld Ballet, The Kansas City Ballet, and Thingseziseem Dance Theatre. She then went on to perform on Broadway in the original cast revival of Chicago, the original cast of Titanic, and Beauty and the Beast, Song & Dance, and Tenderloin

Her extensive Director/Choreographer credits include: Broadway –- Dracula: The Musical, and Wrong Mountain; Off-Broadway — Five Course Love; National Tour – Titanic. Other New York credits are: The Gospel According to Tammy Faye (Manhattan Theater Club, Staged Reading); Music in the Night, A Tribtue to Jerome Kern (Town Hall). Her regional theatre credits include: Grand Night for Singing (California Music Theater); On the Town  (Lesher Center); Cabaret (Center Rep); Oklahoma! (Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts); Musical of Musicals, the Musical (Center Rep); Fiddler on the Roof (Nevada Conservatory Theater); The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (UC Davis); Urinetown: The Musical  (UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence); Oklahoma! (UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence); The New Bozena (Hudson Theater LA); Heart and Soul (St. Petersburg, Russia); Fair Liberty’s Call (World Premiere); and Jesus Christ Superstar (Pittsburg CLO). She has choreographed numerous benefits, industrials, and commercials, as well as for the television show “Law & Order Criminal Intent.” 

Cooper’s local theatrical work has won a total of ten Bay Area Theater Critics Awards including 2009 Best Director of a Musical and 2009 Best Musical. She has been honored as UC Davis Granada Artist-in-Residence twice before this production of The Who’s Tommy: spring 2007 and spring 2009.

This production is rated PG-13.

The Who’s Tommy book was written by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff with additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon. The show was originally produced on Broadway by Pace Theatrical Group and Dodger Productions with Kardana Productions.

What:  The Who’s Tommy: A groundbreaking rock opera about childhood, trauma, and triumph directed by Granada Artist Mindy Cooper with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend.

Where: Main Theatre, Wright Hall, UC Davis

When: Thursday-Saturday, May 19-21, May 26-28, 8:00 p.m.; Sundays May 22 & 29, 2:00 p.m.

Tickets: General: $18/22 Students/Children/Seniors: $15/20

Special Youth Group Tickets: School and youth groups of 10 or more receive a special rate of $10 per ticket at the teacher or group leader’s request. Call the UC Davis Department of Theatre & Dance at 530.752.5863 to make arrangements for this discount.

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UC Davis Arts