January 20, 2021

Rock Opera Tommy To Rock The Community House April 4 - 6


The faithful old stage at the Topanga Community House is currently being trod by numerous youthful feet in rehearsal for an opera. That, in itself is an admirable feat. Director Billy Portman, along with Topanga Youth Services (TYS) director, Karen Cooke, have amazingly brought together some 40 cast members, ranging in age from 10 to 15 for Topanga’s first-ever production of the rock opera Tommy, to be presented the first week in April. The story and music, originally written and performed by The Who in the late 1960s, is about a young boy who is traumatized and becomes, for awhile, blind and deaf, yet he possesses a remarkable skill as a pin-ball wizard.

Those who may remember the more salacious original version of the opera from the ‘60s, where Tommy’s desperate condition was exacerbated by sexual abuse and physical violence, need not worry about bringing the kids to the considerably more tame TYS version. Portman explains, “I’ve rewritten Tommy to make it a bit more kid-friendly. We’ve cut out Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin is now just a bully.” Portman adds, “It’s still a pertinent story today. It’s about friendship and bullies and learning to be an individual.”

A group of actors are pushing Kali Bush-Vineberg, the beautiful young actress who is playing the lead, and will play it as a boy, across the stage on a prop pin-ball machine. Kayla Morrison, Malka Katz and Liam Anderson, amongst a group of local talent, are practicing dance movements and blocking. Music blares and actors step forward to sing.


Rock Opera <i>Tommy</i> To Rock The Community House April 4 - 6

Members of the Topanga Youth Services group rehearsing the musical number “Christmas” for this years production of rock opera Tommy, scheduled to be performed at the Community House from April 4-6. (Left to Right) Max Portman, Karoline Villamil, Zeke Reed, Guy Moore (seated, as little Tommy), Liam Anderson, Cierra Glazer, Amalia Astin, Alexandra Cogbill, Jameson Gann, and Tess Baur.

“Where were you, Redmond? You’re coming in late,” booms Portman at young Mr. Brick, then knowingly adds under his breath, “Maybe I better take it easy, I don’t want to scare them ... yet.”

Billy Portman is a well known Topanga fixture, who wears many hats—Daddy, dandy (have you ever seen him in the burgundy suit?), wild man, Community House Board member, contractor, cool guy, MC, and director. After his wonderful success with the 2006 Topanga Charter Elementary School original production of Seventh Son—a play he created based on the music of the White Stripes—he has stepped forward again with an innovative idea. Tommy was deemed, shall we say, “too sophisticated” for the elementary school level and Portman was unable to mount the production at the school last year. Undeterred, he has found, with the supportive help of Topanga Youth Services and gracious, caring Karen Cooke, a suitable venue for the rousing rock opera.

Cooke states, “Topanga Youth Services is an organization with the Topanga Community Club designed to bring kids together, who otherwise attend different schools. The activities allow them to get to know each other and have a meeting place where they can have fun, socialize, be creative and bond.”

The enthusiastic cast is testament to that vision. Seeing young teens working together, singing, dancing, making loud noises and laughing with their friends is heartwarmingly endearing, but the kids just think it’s cool.

Reports Holiday Donaldson who plays the part of Ms. Walker, Tommy’s mother, “When we first started, it was mostly just goofing off, but now as the show is coming along, we have to get serious. We have to work harder and pay more attention, which can sometimes s**k. But, I know the show is going to be great!”

Cecilie Stuart Garcia and Sue Moore direct the show’s choregraphy. Stuart-Garcia explains, “It’s been so fun to watch the kids’ reaction to different moves. Sometimes they seem to be sort of uncomfortable or embarrassed with the steps or movement. I’ll ask if maybe they don’t like it or need to change it, but they work their way through it and make it their own. We’re all working together and creating something contemporary even though the songs are from the 1960s. I love working with the kids; they all support each other.”

Artist Lauren Bon is designing the set, which promises to be stunning, complete with magic mirror. Talented Zoey Hay serves as costume designer, Hay is simultaneously working on the wardrobe for the Topanga Elementary School production of a musical of a different kind, Seussical. (However does she find the time?)

Playing the part of Tommy’s dad is hard working teen Walter Mathur, who observes, “I missed the tryouts so I feel really lucky to be in the play at all. I know it’s going to be great but I admit it’s sometimes hard to rehearse for two hours, three days a week, if you have homework. Good thing this is fun.”

Two of the younger cast members, Molly Anderson and Meg Dick, run across the stage dressed as newsboys. “Yeah, we have to play boys,” they admit, “but it’s okay. We like our costumes.” Anderson proudly adds, “My Dad made our outfits.”

The efforts of all the parent volunteers, some of whom don’t even have a child in the show, are part of what makes the production such a unique Topanga community experience. Andrew Bush is working the sound, with Mike Mayers and Tim Pershing on lights. There will be an incredible live band playing the score, featuring the likes of, Keith Bilderbeck, Rich Aluso, Bill Bowling, Garrett Hinrichs, and Phillipo Francini, joined by Teague Reeves on French horn. They will put their own spin on The Who classics, including, “Pin-ball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “We’re Not Going To Take it Anymore.”

“I fully expect to see old hippies weeping in the aisles,” warns Portman.

What promises to be an incredible, memorable, rockin’ production of Tommy will take place at the Topanga Community House on the evenings of Friday, April 4, and Saturday, April 5, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, April 6, at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in advance at Mimosa or Topanga Home Grown for $10, or at the door. For information or to volunteer, call (310) 502-3358.

With all the generous expertise involved and the spirit and talent of the young actors, the show is an event not to be missed. Of course, an unnamed source reports, “Portman’s the biggest kid of them all.”

So come, sing along, laugh a little, cry a little, and remember the past while supporting the future of our community.