Catalyst - Iowa City's newest theatre company is taking a big leap this weekend. They'll be performing The Who's rock opera Tommy at the Englert. We recently had a chance to talk to Jeff Shields, founder of Catalyst and director of Tommy. Jeff has directed shows with ICCT, City Circle and Dreamwell.
First of all, why Tommy? What is it about the musical that made you say "I have to direct this"?
Jeff: Tommy's score is totally different than the typical musical. The music really grabs you and won't let go. This isn't a typical musical - it isn't all about people breaking out into dance when they fall in love, et cetera. This is a PG-13 show with some really gritty content at times. It is a story about the pain that Tommy goes through on his "Amazing Journey" through life - but it's really moving in many parts.
Tommy has a pretty big cast. I know it's been tough for all theaters lately to get enough volunteers. Did you have any trouble with casting?
Jeff: We have had our ups and downs with casting, yes. Thankfully those who are the most talented stayed through the show. And we've had some new people join the production that are an absolute treat to work with. I think the biggest problem we faced with this show is that people tend to forget that being a show is a huge commitment. Even if you're only in one scene - if you're not present it hurts everyone in that particular scene. It's also a lot of hard work. The pay-off in the end when you have an audience that enjoyed your performance is huge - but it's often hard to realize that as you go through the 8-10 week rehearsal process for a big scale musical like Tommy.
Tell me about your leads - what have they done before? What do they do in this show that really surprises you?
Jeff: Sean Nollen, a community theatre newbie, is playing the older Tommy. He comes from that far away land called Solon. It's been really great having some new blood in a production. Jeff Mead (Godspell, My Fair Lady, and many other shows) and Rachel Brown (Godspell) play Tommy's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Walker. They both do a fantastic job in the show. Their voices are really moving and to listen to their duets is a true treat. Amanda Murray (My Fair Lady, Seussical) plays the heroin addicted prostitute - the Acid Queen. Amanda is absolutely amazing. She just recently took over the role and it's tough to think of anyone else playing the role better than she is. We also have Chris Capenter (My Fair Lady, Seussical, Music Man) playing the creepy Uncle Ernie. Zakary Morton (She Loves Me) is playing Cousin Kevin. Zakary is bringing a new dimension to the troubled youth and is quite entertaining (in a sadistic sort of way) to watch as he torments Tommy.
There's an opportunity in this show for a big spectacle of lights - anything exciting in that department that we should be looking for?
Jeff: We have been fortunate enough to get Willie Barbour on board to do our lighting and video design for the show. This show will be much like an "arena" rock concert. Being a community theatre we do have limitations, but this show will most likely be unlike any other community theatre production put in the space. We are leaning away from the musical theatre side of this show to a classic rock concert with theatrical elements. It should be really cool for everyone who witnesses this.
How does this show fit in with Catalyst's overall mission?
Jeff: Catalyst wants to strive to give audiences fresh looks at shows they may have seen before. I think we're definitely going to achieve that with this show. We are also committed to giving people learning experiences. Not only is Mark McCusker choreographing the show - he's also teaching the cast how to dance. Most people that come out for musicals and such don't have much dance experience. It's a treat to work with someone who can work well with the cast and bring their knowledge base with dance up to a higher level.
What's it been liking doing a rock musical in an historic theater like the Englert?
Jeff: It's going to be fun to have such a show in such a beautiful venue. It's cool having the beautiful architecture frame the lighting and video displays.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
Jeff: The weather is a big one. Gotta love Iowa! This show is radically different than what I've done before. Needing a wonderful cast that can sing more rock and roll than traditional Broadway and finding a band that can keep up with The Who's style of rock have been a hurdle. Thankfully we are fortunate enough to be in a community where we have such an enormous amount of talented artists and performers.
Isn't that the truth. I am sure we're all looking forward to opening night! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.