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Pinball Wizardry

The Who's Tommy
Christopher Gardner

Sphere of Influence: A prop man works on the giant pinball for "The Who's Tommy."

American Musical Theatre transforms stage into a giant pinball machine for 'Tommy'

By Bernice Yeung

THE REASON San Jose is the site of the first West Coast production of The Who's Tommy since the original tour made a San Francisco stop in 1994? For once, it's not the cheese. As an area exploding with technological pioneers and innovative thinkers, San Jose--heart of the Silicon Valley--is a fitting locale for the rejuvenation of the legendary rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who plays a mean game of pinball.

"San Jose is trembling on the edge of great change," notes John Wilson, set designer for American Musical Theatre of San Jose's production of Tommy, which opens this weekend. "What I see here is the ability to walk out to the edge instead of just sitting back and saying, 'Well, it's always been this way, and it always will be.' There's a willingness to dive into the pool of change."

In designing the technically ambitious set for the San Jose production, Wilson took that proverbial dive, eschewing the traditional painted backdrops. Instead, more than four tons of steel, 15,000 feet of lumber, two miles of electrical wiring, 15,000 lights and vast quantities of Plexiglas were employed to transform the stage into a giant flashing pinball machine.

"We're trying to provide a psychedelic experience for the audience through visuals, create that sense of almost being out of control," Wilson says.

In addition to the fact that there's less paint and more Plexiglas involved in American Musical Theater's production of Tommy than in any standard stage production, Tommy's choreography and staging also feature more flying and flipping than the Broadway (and certainly, the film) version.

Tommy, as played by Walter Winston O'Neil (who, luckily, has parachuting experience), will be secured into a harness for numerous aeronautical stunts. At one point, O'Neil even does a back flip onto a rolling, 8-foot-high pinball.

"I tend to be very physical," artistic director Dianna Shuster admits with a laugh. "I'm always asking actors to do things that make them say, 'You want me to do what?!' "

But then again, Shuster's theatrical style is generally gutsy and nonconformist. Though musical theater is often riddled with nostalgia and sentimentality, Shuster says she hopes to lend a "new vitality" to Tommy by giving more attention to the characters and manipulating the audience's perception of reality and time.

"We move in and out of reality and time," Shuster explains. "There are multirealities; we, the audience, view the real world and take side trips into Tommy's head. And I'm always exploring how time functions--real and imaginary--asking, 'How are we telescoping or exploding events?' "

Not surprisingly, Shuster's approach to the production echoes her description of the late-'60s milieu that inspired Tommy: "It was a time of incredible innovation. Old conventions were being shut down and blown away. None of the rules applied anymore; we had to come up with our own."

The Who's Tommy previews Jan. 17, opens Jan. 18 and runs Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2 and 8:30pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm (Feb. 2, 2pm only), Tuesday (Jan. 21 only) at 8pm and Wednesday­Thursday at 8pm through Feb. 2 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $28­$48. (BASS)

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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