Drama Dock, Vashon’s venerable community theater troupe now celebrating its fourth decade on the island, isn’t playing it safe with its summer musical.
So says Elise Morrill, the director of The Who’s “Tommy,” slated for a run at Vashon Center for the Arts from June 27 to July 7.
The show, based on The Who’s iconic 1969 rock opera “Tommy,” tells the story of a seemingly “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who achieves fame as an arcade legend. Although best remembered for its ultimate ear-worm anthem, “Pinball Wizard,” the album also morphed into a 1975 movie as well, starring Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Ann-Margret, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Jack Nicholson. The Broadway version of the show, with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, picked up five Tony Awards in the mid-1990s.
But Drama Dock’s production will be more stripped down and thoughtful, focusing on the powerful and still-timely messages embedded in the rock opera, Morrill said.
“While you’re still going to be bombarded by the lights and sounds and bells and whistles that ‘Tommy’ lovers want and need, it’s going to be unlike any other production of the show,” Morrill said. “We’re going to do it in a different way.”
For those who recall the music but not the precise details of the plot, a sobering refresher: “Tommy” is about a boy who retreats into catatonia after witnessing a violent crime and suffering horrific abuse. Pinball wizardry proves to be a way forward for the lead character, but also a trap that leads him into a different kind of darkness.
In many ways, the show — despite its raucous music and show-stopping theatrics — is about the quiet and long process of recovering from trauma, Morrill said, adding that it also speaks to the recent seismic shift in American politics and culture.
“I proposed it [to Drama Dock] as a response to the 2016 election,” she said. “I think that on some level, a lot of us were struck deaf, dumb and blind, all at the same time, by that. For a long time afterward, I was wandering around, bumping into walls and wondering what the heck was going on.”
Morrill, who is also the current board president of Drama Dock, said that she was grateful that the board — a group that includes several islanders who have been involved with the theater company for decades, and might have preferred a more traditional musical — agreed to her edgy idea.
“The show has pushed us to extraordinary borders on so many levels that it is going to be good for Drama Dock,” she said.
The show is also an artistic challenge for Morrill. Despite her longtime involvement in the island theater scene as an actor, stage manager, and director “Tommy” will mark the first time she has ever helmed a musical.
“I needed to do something that would take me out of my comfort zone,” she said.
Morrill’s willingness to step into a new form of expression has attracted a cast filled with other adventurous, like-minded souls.
The multi-age ensemble for “Tommy” includes Drama Dock veterans Sue DeNies, Elise Ericksen, Julea Gardener, Anne Moses and Matt Wilson. But newbies outnumber stalwarts in this production.
Allison Shirk and Tony Mann, well-known musicians on the island, are both appearing in leading roles in their first-ever forays into community theater. The cast also includes three teenagers — Lucy Rogers, Gabriel Dawson and Phoebe Ray. Hailey Quackenbush, a current Evergreen State College student who is still remembered by many for his comic turns on the stage of Vashon High School, is also in the show.
The ensemble is rounded out by Chai Ste. Marie and Sarah Howard, who will both make their Drama Dock debuts in the show. The artistic team is made up of musical director Christopher Overstreet, choreographer Hallie Aldrich, costumer Jaime D’Agostino and vocal coach Elizabeth Nye. Band members include Andy James, Gavin Ford Kovite, Jess Whitford and harmonica wizard Mike Nichols.
For Shirk, a singer and songwriter who frequently performs onstage but has never before been in a play, the experience of acting and singing in “Tommy” has been a revelation. She plays the meaty role of Tommy’s mother.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to be on stage and step out of myself,” she said, adding that she thinks the experience will cross over to give her greater confidence and freedom as a music performer. Daily rehearsals with the cast, she said, have also increased her vocal range.
Best of all, she said, is the way she has felt buoyed by the camaraderie of the close-knit cast.
“It feels very much like a family,” she said.
Mann, a singer, songwriter and keyboardist with the island bands One More Mile and One Night Stand, echoed Shirk’s enthusiasm. Acting, singing and dancing in his first-ever show, he said, has been a challenge and adventure made possible by the support of his fellow cast members.
“Everyone is going out of their way to support everyone else,” he said. “Allison and I can join in, and not be looked at as newcomers.”
Performances of “Tommy” will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 27, 28 and 29; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 30; 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 5 and 6 and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 7. Tickets, $25 general, $22 seniors, students, VCA and Drama Dock members, are on sale now at vashoncenterforthearts.org. Parental guidance for those 13 and younger is suggested due to mature content.