Catalyst - Tommy is a rock opera. It's a story of personal discovery, of innocence lost and regained, of the price of fame, of passion and loss. It has the potential to overwhelm your senses, to lift you up with its soaring score, to emotionally attack your heart. Catalyst Acting Company chose a challenging piece for its first major production at the Englert Theatre. And thanks to some powerful performances, they mostly pulled it off.
Tommy is just a boy when he witnesses his father kill his mother's lover. Because of the trauma, he becomes "deaf, dumb and blind" as the song goes. First grader Colby Kaplahn is adorable as the youngest Tommy. He does a wonderful job showing us a happy boy allowing us to feel the tragedy of his trauma. Sixth grader Grant Blades is also excellent at the 10-year-old Tommy. His is a heartbreaking performance when he sadly sings "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me." Sean Nollen plays the grown up Tommy. While Nollen has a good voice, unfortunately either his voice or his mike gave out during crucial moments of a number of songs. Nollen could also have benefited from some stronger direction as he never seemed to know what to do when he wasn't singing and never took advantage of the entire stage.
In contrast, Jeffrey Mead and Rachel Brown were fantastic as Captain and Mrs. Walker. Both not only had excellent voices, but knew how to connect what they were singing to the overall action of the story. Also outstanding were Zakary Morton as Cousin Kevin and the always fun to watch Chris Carpenter as Uncle Ernie. Morton had a command of the entire stage drawing my eye every time he appeared. His vocals were strong and the scene where he torments Tommy with the help of his gang was one of the best, if most disturbing, moments of the show. Carpenter gave us a scarily effective performance of "Fiddle About" and provided lots of laughs with his cabaret dance in "Tommy's Holiday Camp".
It wouldn't be possible to say enough good things about the band. Lead by the always on target Lyle Juracek, the band had us rocking in our seats. They received well deserved whoops and strong applause at the end of the show.
While there were powerful moments in the show, it didn't quite live up to its potential because only the leads were miked. Many of the ensemble had solos and were difficult to hear. This was particularly frustrating during "Pinball Wizard" as one of the two soloists couldn't be heard at all. You got the sense the band was doing what they could to tone it down a little bit, but it wasn't enough. Every soloist needed a mike.
Despite that, this is a show worth seeing. Catalyst shows real promise as a young theatre company. Support these talented performers. Go see the show tonight or tomorrow at the Englert.
Matthew has a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa. He has directed, acted in, and produced theater in the Iowa City area for over ten years. He has worked with the Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle and Dreamwell, of which he is a founder. Two of his plays have been produced in the Iowa City area. In another brief life, he also worked as a technical writer.
(Top picture: Rachel Brown, Colby Kaplahn and Jeffrey Mead. Middle picture: Rachel Brown, Sean Nollen and Jeffrey Mead. Bottom picture: The entire cast.)