Yes, I Think It's Alright

Before I tell you why and how quickly you should go to see Nearly Naked Theater's nearly perfect (and almost entirely clad!) production of The Who's Tommy, I had better come clean: I don't like modern dance. All that flailing and hopping and mimicking of shape and form; all that arm-waving and hip-swaying fluidity -- I'm never convinced, when I'm forced to watch modern dance, that I'm not actually watching a colossal joke played by a dance instructor on a group of people who move like -- well, like I would move if asked to enact, in dance, the movements my washing machine makes while it's laundering my soiled undergarments.

But forced to watch modern dance I was, last week, and it's saying something that I didn't leave the theater mad or feeling gypped of a good time. I did find myself trying to look over and around something called the Scorpius Dance Theatre, which wiggled and squirmed between me and Damon Dering's wonderful interpretation of Pete Townshend's famed rock opera.

Actually, Tommy isn't technically a rock opera, because it doesn't utilize a traditional operatic construct involving staging, scenery, acting and recitation. In fact, Tommy is a song cycle that tells a story. Whatever it is, it is, in this new, smaller, local incarnation, a pleasure to behold.

Are there people who don't know that Tommy is the fictional story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a pinball wizard and later a religious icon? That it was originally a late '60s album by British rock band The Who, later made into a film starring the band's lead singer, Roger Daltrey? I suppose so. This stage musical is a scaled-down version of the Broadway blockbuster of 10 years ago, and according to Dering's director's notes, one he's long been in love with.

Dering's love for Tommy is evident, even as he strays occasionally into excess, like splitting his Gypsy Acid Queen into two -- a singer and a dance troupe -- or when he loads Gregory Jaye's gorgeous industrial set design with too much symbolism, like the big bald guy who sits staring out at the audience throughout Act Two. And Dering would do well to rework the first few minutes, where the cast wanders slowly onto the stage, discovering one another in greeting as if they were guests at a Hair cast reunion.

But I'm not quibbling. Dering has assembled an impressive cast around enigmatic Sean Rhys Gilyeat, who takes on the title role as if he'd been training for it his whole young life. Gilyeat's solos with Aftermash, the excellent rock band that performs the score here, are quite amazing. And behind all that quirky dancing, Dering has done something daring: He's stripped away the glamour that made the original Broadway version look so lame and returned Tommy to its gritty rock-and-roll roots. To quote Townshend's lyrics: "How do you think he does it? I don't know." And I don't care. Just go see this audacious, slightly naughty, very entertaining rock musical. Despite all the wiggling that will take place between it and you, I think you'll enjoy yourself.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela