Tommy, can you hear me?

An intimate setting is the perfect place to be enveloped by The Who’s rock opera Tommy. New American Theater (NAT) is just such a place.

The blank stare of Tommy, age 4, and Tommy, age 10, made me squirm in my seat a bit. I know he is a deaf, dumb, blind kid, but he’s creeping me out. Then put Manley Pope center-stage locked into the audience perfectly, and you feel as if he is looking right through you. That’s why a theater the size of NAT is able to put you face-to-face with someone you want to help, someone whose vapid expression brings so much more than pity to the audience.

Tommy is approaching 40 years in existence, and each iteration seems to bring a new appreciation of the story, the music, the energy and how each age group that has experienced it feels a sense of connection.

Tommy sprang from a concept album in 1969 to a film in 1975, which has acquired cult status. The film version was a veritable Who’s Who, including Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson. In 1993, Tommy won five Tony awards.

The casting and direction of NAT’s production of Tommy is impressive. Artistic Director Tony Vezner has given Rockford a most-generous gift in bringing Manley Pope to Rockford for this performance.

Pope has appeared on Broadway in Rent and recently played Tommy in Pittsburgh. Pope transitions from the silent to the charismatic celebrity flawlessly, which is sometimes a challenge.

The costumes are vivid, accurate and add to the audience’s time travel back to the 1970s.

Don’t miss Manley Pope on stage May 21 at 7 p.m., singing his own tunes, some of “The Boss,” and most likely some Who. Proceeds benefit NAT and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered by calling 964-6282.

Anne E. O’Keefe is executive director of the Rockford Area Arts Council.

From the May 10-16, 2006, issue

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