Special/Signature Issues » We've Got the Music In Us

Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

The band powers TheatreVCU's production of a legendary rock opera.

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Surrounded by the rest of the cast of “The Who's Tommy,” Cooper Timberline sure plays a mean pinball.

Backstage at Raymond Hodges Theatre, there's a flurry of activity for the nightly run through of “The Who's Tommy.” Dane Magoon, the bassist for local acts the Dirty Truth and Jared Jones and Lust Not Love, has loaded his gear and waits for the rest of the band to join the fray. You might assume the band has it easy with the sole duty to play songs by the Who over and over, rather than memorizing lines, gestures and blocking. But when you think of “Tommy,” do you think of the acting or the music?

Magoon has the biggest stake in the music's success. He assembled the lineup at the behest of the show's music director, Leilani Mork. A pal of Mork's fiance, Magoon was out to dinner with the couple when it came up that Mork was responsible for shaping the musical experience of TheatreVCU's production of the first rock opera.

The novelty of building a band of local musicians rather than just Virginia Commonwealth University students, appealed to both Mork and Magoon. “I basically contacted a bunch of guys I've played with off and on over the years,” he says. This includes Alabama Thunderpussy guitarist Ryan Lake and Workhorse Blue drummer David Hess, who both grew up with Magoon in Williamsburg. The first time they played together was in the basement of Hess' mom's house. “It goes way back,” Magoon says.

Guitarist Daniel Sessler is a more recent collaborator, performing with Magoon in the Dirty Truth. The final pick for the ensemble was keyboardist Gabe Churray, from iLad and the Moonbees. Although he has no direct connection to the others, he earned his master's in music from James Madison University. “When you have the opportunity to assemble a band, you have to make a choice to be the smartest guy in the room or the dumbest,” Magoon jokes. “Gabe's the smart one.” Guitarist Grant Oliver and drummer Alex Herman round out the cast.

 

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Bassist Dane Magoon watches from the background as guitarists Daniel Sessler and Ryan Lake channel Pete Townshend.

A few members have experience playing the Who's four-chord classics, but only Sessler has seen the actual play, 10 years ago. “I remember seeing clips of the movie on TV and thinking it was really bizarre,” Lake recalls. “Ann Margaret covered in baked beans.” So the storyline about a young boy's journey from devastating tragedy to personal liberation and cultural resistance was a little hazy at first. But performing the soundtrack in its entirety has prevented band members from brushing past details. Songs that are absent from radio play lists, such as “Amazing Journey,” “Sparks” and “Smash the Mirror,” make it easier for the band members to appreciate the concept album and story. “I had never put it together, how it really ends,” Magoon says.

Perhaps the most difficult part is knowing when to play. Band members must rely on actors for cues, which most of them weren't used to. “For example, we have to make sure we see [the actor] smash the mirror with the chair before we play a certain part of the song,” Lake says. Showmanship must be kept to a minimum or members risk damaging their instruments and themselves on the giant set pieces. So don't expect Pete Townshend-inspired windmills or Keith Moon fireworks theatrics.

Other than that, they've been given liberty in their delivery. Mork wants them to follow the format of the Broadway production, but instead of using a stock production approach, they'll play it like a real band. Which is why the group fits in nicely; having the guitarist from Alabama Thunderpussy can certainly thrash things up a bit. After months of practicing scenes with a piano, the cast was geared up for the real thing too.

“When we warmed up and did ‘Overture' and ‘Pinball Wizard' the first night we got together with [the actors], they just went over-the-top crazy,” Hess says. “Their enthusiasm is really cool.” Although it's not used to practicing in front of an audience, the band acknowledges that the energy's contagious. “It's funny, I'll blow something and there's 50 pairs of eyes,” Magoon says. “But when it's good, it's really good — and you can feel it.”

Performances of “The Who's Tommy,” directed by Barry Bell, are scheduled for April 15-17 and April 22-24 at 7:30 p.m. and April 11, 18 and 25 at 3 p.m. in the W.E. Singleton Performing Arts Center, 922 Park Ave. Tickets are $25 general admission; $20 for seniors, VCU faculty and staff; $10 for VCU students with a valid student ID. For information call 828-6026.

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