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A CurtainUp Review
The Who's Tommy
By Elyse Sommer
Thanks to the vision of director-adapter Jared Coseglia, this Tommy is a fresh and distinctive revival. Without attempting to match the technical pyrotechnics of the multiple award winning Broadway musical, the staging is visually dynamic. The story line departs quite dramatically from the 1993 version -- giving Tommy's story a more up-to-date, more operatic and darker edge (what could be more operatic than a beginning and end gun shot?).
The mirror which is the overriding metaphor for how six-year-old Tommy's life is shattered and remains less than shatter proof even after the "miraculous" recovery of his senses is now the invisible "fourth wall" -- a two-way mirror into which Tommy stares wordlessly and vacantly, with the audience watching from the other side. This approach might get lost in a large house but is well suited to this venue.
The rock opera by the British group Who has been an integral part of pop culture since 1969. It began as a concert, was adapted for film as well as a ballet, and eventually became a hit musical. The story line follows a young boy, Tommy, born after his father, Captain Walker, enlists in the war (the war in the current production is no longer World War II but more suggestive of Vietnam). After being presumed dead, the father returns and young Tommy is witness to a fight that ends with his father shooting his mother's lover. The child is so traumatized that he becomes deaf, blind and mute. All efforts to find a cure are dead-ended -- until Tommy's uncanny ability as a pinball player reactivates his senses and results in guru-like notoriety from which those who added to his misery try to profit.
The sung-through show is propelled by many pulsating rock and roll numbers. It's a longer song list than usual for a musical, and includes such favorites as "Pinball Wizard" and " See Me, Feel Me." Unfortunately, while the band is neatly tucked out of sight on the theater's upper level, the instruments nevertheless often drown out the lyrics, especially during the first act. This despite Mr. Coseglia's doubling as co-sound designer. However, thanks to his adaptation's clarifying changes and the overall originality and visual comprehensibility of the production, there's not a moment's confusion about what's going on.
Captain Walker and Mrs. Walker, as well as Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin, are now actually much more convincing as the sort of parents and relatives from Hell who unfortunately fill our social networks' case books about dysfunctional families -- their behavior is often not just unloving but criminal. Thus Captain Walker exacerbates his crime of passion by framing his innocent child, replacing the child's box camera with the just fired gun.
To add to the sexual tensions, there's an uncle who's a pepdophile, Mrs. Walker's lover is now a woman, the grown Tommy's persona is strongly reminiscent of Michael Jackson (not exactly a poster child for a normal childhood), and the flamboyant Acid Queen (one of the many potential "cure" providers) is a transvestite. With relatives and helping "professionals" like this, Coseglia's operatic finale is a lot more convincing than a happy ending would be.
Ultimately, what really gives any production its theatrical legs is the cast. While not everyone here is up to the triple challenge of acting, singing and dancing, all are charged with energy and fully committed.
Alexander Hill as the young child doesn't have much to do but you have only to compare his on-stage stance as the catatonic child in his bizarre glittery suit to the program's picture of the young actor in his oh so normal Little League uniform to take in the horrible effects of violence and bad parenting on a young life.
Julian Alexander Barnett gives the teen Tommy an eerie other-worldly quality. He is also the best dancer -- and no wonder, since he is also the show's choreographer.
The adult Tommy, Cory Grant, is actually visible throughout as a Michael Jackson-like figure gyrating,and sing-narrating on an upstage platform. As Captain Walker, James Barry, by now a Unicorn Theatre regular, shows that he can sing as well as act. Dalane Mason is particularly impressive as the exploitative Uncle Ernie. Strong impressions are also made by Stephanie Girard as a woman who is too easily persuaded to do the wrong thing,and Thay Floyd as the Acid Queen. There's also nasty Cousin Kevin, well played by Christopher Mowod, though his singing is spotty.
Yoshinori Tanokura's costumes are fun and Paul Hudson's scenic design serves the story well -- and, yes, it includes a pinball machine that bursts into blazing lights. It's not a big Broadway show pinball machine -- but then the machinery that's front and center in this Tommy is the social machinery that fails innocent children like Tommy -- even when they have moments that call for songs like " I'm free."