So, who's 'Tommy'? Four young actors portray title character in arts center production

July 2, 2010 

  • Whitaker Gannon is a rising eighth-grader at Hilton Head Preparatory School. She's appeared in two other shows at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Sherecently played Charlie in the Main Street Youth Theatre's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and was in the national tour run of "Fiddler on the Roof" in Savannah. Jarod Valvo is a home-schooled sixth-grader. He also appeared in the arts center's production of "South Pacific," Main Street Youth Theatre's "Tuck Everlasting" and S.C. Children's Theatre's "The King and I." Rachel Valvo is a home-schooled first-grader. "The Who's Tommy" is her first arts center performance. She's also appeared in the S.C. Children's Theatre's "The King and I" with her older brother, Jarod. Delaney Yurco is a rising third-grader at Hilton Head Island International Baccalaureate Elementary. She played Young Cosette in the arts center's "Les Miserables." She also performs with the Hilton Head Dance School and the Hilton Head Choral Society Youth Choir. IF YOU GO The Arts Center of Coastal Carolina's production of "The Who's Tommy" runs through Aug. 1 at the theater on Hilton Head Island. Tickets are $39-$49. Details: 843-842-2787, www.artshhi.com

The young actors knew it wasn't going to be a typical role during the audition process. At the call back, they didn't have to say anything. Their task was to sit still and try their best not to get distracted.

They were trying out for the title role in "The Who's Tommy," now playing at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina through Aug. 1.

Tommy is the deaf, dumb and blind boy who, as the rock opera goes, "sure plays a mean pinball." Aside from a few lines of song, the young versions of the character are silent for most of the play. But Tommy's often the center of attention. He's hoisted and twirled by the cast, placed on top of pinball machines and even rolled around in a trash can.

In the arts center production, Tommy is played by four young local actors -- three of them girls -- who split time as the character at two different ages. Whitaker Gannon, 13, and Jarod Valvo, 9, play the 10-year-old Tommy. Jarod's younger sister, Rachel, 6, and Delaney Yurco, 8, portray the 4-year-old Tommy.

Because it isn't the typical role, the audition process was unique. The children sang in the first audition. At the call back, the directors asked the young actors to stay emotionless and focused amid constant movement and noise. Auditioners mimicked scenes from the play, rolling the children in chairs or lifting them on top of props.

"Finding four kids who would want to do that wasn't easy," said arts center general manager Richard Feldman, who was involved in the casting. "We'd worked with them before. ... I knew what they can do. I knew about their dedication and focus. "

The casting is split, so Jarod and his sister play their roles for two nights, then switch for two nights with Whitaker and Delaney.

"It's been a very cool experience," Whitaker said. "It's been very different. It's not your average show character. It takes a lot of concentration and focus."

The four Tommys say the cast has welcomed them, treating them like fellow actors and not children.

Director Russell Garrett was careful to make sure the children would be comfortable with all the interaction during the play, including getting stuffed into a padded trash can and rolled around on stage.

"We even had a trash-can fitting," Jarod said. "Never had that before."

The youngsters have been rehearsing since the beginning of June, meaning their total commitment to the production is nine weeks. Nine weeks of constant work can be tough on anyone, so the decision was made to double-cast the child actors, Feldman said.

All of the kids have stage experience, so they know what the grind is like. And all of them want to continue with theater in the future.

As Jarod says, "Do what you like and you won't work a day in your life."

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