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MSUM music, theatre students bring 'The Who's Tommy' to life

MSUM music and theater students work together to bring the story of the show alive. Photo courtesy of Skyler Zak, MSUM1 / 4
"The Who’s Tommy" takes place early in World War II and pushes into the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Skyler Zak, MSUM2 / 4
"The Who's Tommy" is an adaptation of The Who's rock album, "Tommy". Photo courtesy of Skyler Zak, MSUM3 / 4
The story follows Tommy, a young boy who becomes catatonically blind, deaf and mute after witnessing his father commit a terrible crime upon his return from World War II. Photo courtesy of Skyler Zak, MSUM4 / 4

The Who's rock album "Tommy" has been a smash hit since the band released it in 1969 — and not just because of the exhilarating music.

The album also tells a heartfelt story about a young boy born in the thick of World War II who experiences a lot of darkness in his life.

"Tommy" became so popular that in 1992, composer Pete Townshend and Broadway director Des McAnuff adapted the album into a Broadway musical called "The Who's Tommy."

Since then, the musical has been performed around the world, including high schools and colleges — and it's coming to Minnesota State University Moorhead.

MSUM presents "The Who's Tommy" at 7:30 p.m. April 4-7 on the Gaede Stage in the University's Roland Dille Center for the Arts.

The story follows Tommy, a young boy who becomes catatonically blind, deaf and mute after witnessing his father commit a terrible crime upon his return from World War II. As an adolescent, Tommy is bullied and abused, but finds a temporary escape from his pain through pinball.

By the 1960s, Tommy (Michael Kalpakhoff) has risen to stardom as a "pinball wizard" and leader of a cult. When a confrontation with his mother breaks through his catatonia, Tommy must decide how to move forward with his life and the people in it.

Director Craig Ellingson, who is also director of theatre arts at MSUM, says the show is different than others the college has done in the past because of the subject matter and the amount of collaboration between university departments.

Hit songs like "Pinball Wizard," "See Me, Touch Me" and "Acid Queen" underline the emotional undercurrents of the Tony-Award winning musical, but the main takeaway from the show is that there is often triumph after trauma and heartache, Ellingson says.

"I hope audience members understand Tommy's plight, but also reflect on the things they've been through," Ellingson says. "What is their story? What do they want to leave behind?"

Bringing a rock-and-roll based production to life presents many technical challenges, so MSUM's School of Performing Arts partnered with the School of Entertainment Industries and Technology to create a rock concert-like set that emphasizes light design.

The lights, conceptualized by MSUM alum and professional lighting designer Jeff Brown, are meant to communicate feelings of hope and healing in the show, Ellingson explains.

MSUM's Commercial Ensemble will perform the rock score's instrumental music while music theatre students provide the vocals. This has proven an exciting challenge for all involved.

"The plot is told primarily through music, so the students have to understand how to live in this different universe and be engaged with what the music is communicating," Ellingson says.

He adds that the production has been a great learning experience for his students, and he hopes they take away lessons about history and social issues from the production as well.

"These ideas of bullying, abuse and mental illness are unfortunately at the forefront of our thoughts with what's happening politically," Ellingson says. "What the show does is let students know that (these issues) have been around, and that until we're able to discuss them openly, how can we go forward?"

If You Go

What: MSUM presents "The Who's Tommy"

When: 7:30 p.m. April 4-7

Where: Gaede Stage in MSUM's Roland Dille Center for the Arts, 801 13th St. S., Moorhead

Tickets: Visit or call (218) 477-2271.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit