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What Makes ‘Tommy’ So Good? Start With the Players and Score

Those attending the cast party for “The Who’s Tommy” Tuesday met not one Tommy but five--Steve Isaacs, who plays the Pinball Wizard as an adult and the four children who play Tommy as a child.

The board of directors of the Orange County Performing Arts Center staged the post-performance bash at Diva in Costa Mesa after “Tommy” opened its weeklong run at the center. About 150 supporters of the Costa Mesa center spent the evening eating pasta and mingling with the actors and musicians.

There Has to Be a Twist

“Tommy” is the story of Tommy Walker, who withdraws from the world after a traumatic childhood experience only to emerge--a “deaf, dumb and blind kid"--as a reluctant hero: the Pinball Wizard.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was seeing two of the children who play Tommy wearing dresses--actresses Kelly Mady and Caitlin Newman share the role of traumatized Tommy at age 4. Those who did not over the next two weekends. carefully read their programs assumed the character was played by a boy.

Caitlin, 8, only had eyes for Isaacs, the former MTV veejay who plays the grown-up Tommy.

“He’s awesome,” she said, jumping into his arms. “He’s fun.”

Isaacs, who spent much of the night teasing his young co-stars, said he gets along with child actors because “I still have kid-ness in me.”

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“I’m taking them to Disneyland Monday.”

A singer/songwriter, the 24-year-old Isaacs is having as much fun playing Tommy as a kid at the Happiest Place on Earth.

“I love Pete Townshend’s work. It’s a big honor (to play Tommy). It’s really exhausting but super rewarding,” he said.

Isaacs is no stranger to Orange County: His parents live in Laguna Niguel. Still, he showed childlike amazement at the Performing Arts Center: “It’s one of the weirdest buildings I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m used to a symmetrical theater. This is like a ‘Star Wars’ hangar bay.”

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While Isaacs was busy being mobbed by guests, actor William Youmans, who plays the wicked Uncle Ernie, sat at a table with other cast members quietly enjoying his dinner.

“Because of my character, I don’t get a lot of girls at the back stage door wanting to meet me,” he said. Youmans’ character sexually abuses Tommy.

“It’s hard to play a character who’s very unpopular,” he said. “I try to go within myself to bring out some pain to show that people who molest children are in pain.”

An Amazing Journey

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As every Who fan knows, “Tommy” began as a best-selling album written by Townshend in 1969. The concept album inspired a movie in 1975, but it did not become musical theater until 1992 when it premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of Des McAnuff.

After becoming a huge hit at the playhouse, “Tommy” opened on Broadway on April 22, 1993, and received five Tony Awards, including a best score award for Townshend and a best director award for McAnuff.

Alec Timerman, who plays an ill-fated lover in the play and is understudy for the lead, said, “ ‘Tommy’s’ going to be one of those landmark musicals. Des McAnuff has created a new way of storytelling. It’s very visual and sensual.”

After seeing the play’s debut in Orange County, where it received a standing ovation, party-goers also offered rave reviews.

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“I thought the play had a real message--which is (conveyed) in the song in the second act (‘I’m Free’),” said Sheila Sonenshine, a new board member. “And the staging and sets were unbelievable. When I see something like that I wonder, do they sit around for days trying to think that stuff up?”

Other guests were: Tom Nielsen, center chairman; Tom Tomlinson, executive director and chief operating officer of the center; Buzz and Lois Aldrin, Tony Allen, Byron Allumbaugh, Pat Carlyle, E.H. Clark, Keith Dahl, Richard Engel, Sandy Fainbarg, Gordon and Rita Fishman, Walter Henry, Carol Hoffman, Janet Lind, Paula Lingelbach, Tim and Susan Strader, Tom and Marianne Trollan and Tim Weiss.

* ROCK OR ROCKY?: Epic art or lame facsimile: Chris Willman reviews “The Who’s Tommy.” F1


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