- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The team of Brooke L. Howells and James D. Watson, along with producer Ann Marie Watson, are prepping an explosive rock opera to be staged for a four-weekend run at Port Tobacco Players Theater.
The pressure is on considering that “The Who’s Tommy” is director and choreographer Howells’ favorite musical of all time.
“I never in a million years thought I’d be directing the show,” said Howells, a Charles County native who started at the theater in 1998.
She saw the musical at the Kennedy Center when she was 15. When the opportunity to stage it at PTP came about, the bells and whistles of pinball machines were too hard to ignore.
Howells and Watson have long been a team, working together on shows like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Into the Woods” and “The Producers,” and have developed a way of working that has proven effective.
They have worked together for a “very long time,” Watson said, adding that they are artistic partners.
“Brooke and I can read each other.”
Along with Watson’s wife, Ann Marie, who usually serves as the producer on the shows they do together, the main triad — producer, director and music director — are quite comfortable with one another, Watson said.
When the team decides what show they’re going to work on, they cease listening to and watching anything that could cause them to produce a carbon copy of past productions.
“We want to put our own stamp on it,” Watson said. “We want it to be our show and not mimicking” other productions.
Because the musical is sung through with very little dialogue, Howells and Watson decided to mic the whole cast — 26 people. It’s the first time they have taken that step.
“That’s a challenge we needed to rise to,” Watson said.
Another first: the theater’s recently upgraded speaker system will be used for “The Who’s Tommy.”
Tommy is a tech-heavy show — there is an exploding pinball machine — so two weeks were set aside for the crew to work on the elements of the production, from lights and special effects to costumes and sound.
There is a slideshow that runs the length of the play, and eight 32-inch flat screen TVs will play a live video feed.
“It is not a typical musical,” Howells said. “It’s like a rock concert.”
The performers have to be up to the challenge the show presents, as well.
Stamina — both vocal and physical — is an issue, Watson said.
With traditional musicals, performers have a chance to “catch their breath,” but “Tommy” doesn’t allow for a respite.
And because it is a story mostly told through back-to-back songs, there is not a lot of time for the audience to respond with applause and laughter.
The show is also “pretty loud,” Watson said, with numerous keyboards, guitars, basses and a French horn in the orchestra pit.
The Tony Award-winning musical follows the life of a young boy who was struck “deaf, dumb and blind” by a violent act he witnessed, according to information provided by the theater.
The only connection he has to the world is an almost supernatural ability to win at pinball.
The show features The Who’s hits, including “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation.”
Despite being a 16-year-old guy, rock music was foreign to Joshua Pierre, a Henry E. Lackey High School student, when he was cast in the show, his first at PTP, in the ensemble.
“I have been listening to the same [Christian] radio station for 16 years,” he said.
Once he was cast, he started listening to some rock songs and found he liked the genre.
“I’ve never heard of too many rock operas other than “Rent,” which is my all-time favorite,” he said.
He started acting as a member of Lackey’s theater department and auditioned for “Tommy” on the advice of a friend.
He’s happy he did.
“It’s a good opportunity to get some experience,” he said, adding that rehearsals keep him busy in the downtime of summer. “Theater is very broad. ... There is always something going on. It’s fun, enjoyable, and you meet all types of people.”
Ryan Dolan, a singer in the Air Force Band, came to an audition with the encouragement of his wife Amy, who played Mother Abbess in PTP’s “Sound of Music,” for which she was nominated for a Washington Area Theatre Community Honors award.
On the sign-up sheet for “Tommy,” there is a space to jot down what role is of interest to the actor.
Dolan wrote “any.” It was his first time auditioning for a play at PTP, so he didn’t know what to expect.
He was cast as the title character.
While he isn’t a rock singer, he is used to performing different genres with the Air Force Band and has found the most challenging aspect of the part to be playing deaf, mute and blind.
He said he tries to zone out, conscious not to do something that could give it away that his condition is not what it seems.
He also has to be led around by other actors, and that takes faith in his co-stars.
“I trust the people out there,” he said.
During a recent evening, before a rehearsal, Howells is attending to different behind-the-scenes duties, like stapling a bed skirt on a prop. An actress from the ensemble is sweeping up parts of the stage that resemble a pinball machine convention (five were built by resident set construction guru John Merritt for the production).
In community theater, “There is a lot of pitching in,” Howells said. “Everybody has to do the work.”
Musicals “are so much work, but so much fun,” she added. “I like straight plays, but musicals are where my heart is.”