He isn’t “deaf, dumb or blind,” as the famed 1970s-era lyrics describe the title character in the rock musical “The Who’s Tommy.” (Of course, that lingo wouldn’t be acceptable today to characterize someone with a speech disability.)
But this ensemble cast member sure plays a mean pinball.
I’m watching Michael Argain play a custom “Tommy” pinball machine set up in the lobby of the Dan Pessano Theatre. He’s been at it for only a few minutes and has already racked up several hundred million points.
I remark that the game is noticeably generous with its bonuses in order for him to compile such a high score so quickly.
Argain gives me a quick, knowing glance as he sets another ball into play, as if to say: Try working these flippers yourself before making pinball proclamations.
“I make it look easy,” he says.
Argain doesn’t play Tommy in the new StageWorks Fresno production of the musical. (The role is actually depicted by three different actors of various ages.) But the 32-year-old Clovis actor, who in his day job is in information technology, is so ecstatic at being in the show that you’d think he’d landed the starring role. He’s positively giddy.
“This is significantly a level of awesome,” he says of being part of the show.
Bigger than a fan
To call Argain a “Tommy” fan is a serious understatement. He is a “Tommy” disciple. He’s seen the show live 28 times, quite a feat when you consider the 1993 Broadway musical hasn’t had a national tour in years and isn’t a mainstay of community theater.
From the time his father took him at age 8 to see the first national tour in San Francisco, he glommed onto the show. He memorized the lyrics and scooped up every recording he could find.
When Joel Abels, who co-directs the new StageWorks show with choreographer Josh Montgomery, put on a production of “Tommy” in 2006 at Children’s Musical Theaterworks, Argain went to nearly every performance.
In 2013, when “Tommy” was revived at Canada’s Stratford Festival in a production featuring much of the original creative team, including director Des McAnuff, Argain saw the show seven times in two separate trips to the Toronto area.
Argain also is a big fan of “RENT,” which he has seen live 98 times.
“Rock musicals are the soundtracks of my life,” he says.
Something about the strange storyline in “Tommy,” which was adapted in the Broadway show from the concept album from The Who’s Pete Townshend, has resonated with Argain over the years. In the show, the young boy Tommy witnesses a traumatic incident. From that point on, he can’t see, speak or hear. As he gets older, and doctors try to help, Tommy discovers he has a preternatural ability to play pinball even without the help of his senses, and his fame spreads.
What do you do when the show you love features a pinball wizard?
You become one yourself.
Argain made a dream come true in 2013 when he located an original The Who’s Tommy Pinball Wizard machine for sale in South Carolina. He’d first played the machine when it was featured in the lobby of a performance of the show’s national tour. Fewer than 5,000 of the machines were manufactured, and many are in junkyards today.
He bought the South Carolina machine for $2,800, had it shipped across the country and taught himself how to repair and restore it, tracking down original replacement parts.
That’s the machine standing in the Dan Pessano lobby.
Argain holds the high U.S. score for the “Tommy” machine. His score: 1,972,188,990.
The international high score, however, is 5 billion points. He has a ways to go.
Laws of physics
You can go deep with Argain about his infatuation with “Tommy.” Some people see the character’s loss of his sight, hearing and speech as a severe form of autism. Argain has firsthand experience with that condition. He had a long-term relationship with a woman who has an autistic son. He met the woman when her son was 3 and served as a father figure over the years.
The relationship ended recently after eight years, a bittersweet finale. In that way, he says, life is different from “Tommy.”
As we talk, he’s continuing to play his “Tommy” machine, though only half concentrating. It looks in perfect condition, as shiny and pristine as a beloved custom car. I ask to play a ball.
It immediately strikes me that there’s something solid and tactile about a game such as this. It uses gravity. I’m not playing in a virtual world created by pixels but a reality in which the laws of physics apply.
I last about 45 seconds. This is harder than it looks.
The acting thing has come relatively late for Argain, who says he went the “safe route” and got a 9-to-5 job rather than indulge in his love for musical theater. He started auditioning last year and has two credits to his name before “Tommy,” both with the Selma Arts Center.
Which is one reason why he’s so thrilled to play a doctor, policeman, judge, newspaper reporter and other ensemble roles in a StageWorks show, one of the central San Joaquin Valley’s best theater companies.
Argain gets the call: It’s time for rehearsal to begin. He smiles.
“If I wasn’t in this show,” he says, “I’d have bought tickets to all 11 performances.”
The Who’s Tommy
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 1, and runs through July 17
- Dan Pessano Theatre, Clovis North Performing Arts Complex
- 2770 E. International Ave.
- www.stageworksfresno.com, 559-289-6622