Saturday, October 8, 2011

THE WHO'S TOMMY • Stray Dog Theatre

Take a young boy, nullified into a practically catatonic state by witnessing a violent act at home, abuse from a vile uncle and a vicious cousin, a pinball machine, a rise to messianic fame and some kick-ass rock music -- what do you get?  You get THE WHO'S TOMMY, Stray Dog Theatre's strikingly ambitious season opener.

Pete Townshend and The Who's double concept album is considered by many to be one of the first rock operas.  It is at any rate, one of the best known, and it attained massive success when it was released in 1969.  1975 brought a star-studded psychedelic film version, and then a Broadway musical adaptation in 1993 (Alice Ripley made her Broadway debut in it) that won Tony Awards for original score, scenic design, lighting design, choreography, and direction.

From the minute those first chords explode and the expositional scenes begin, this full tilt ride never stops.  In Stray Dog's production, the visual elements lean heavily towards "steampunk".  Explaining what that's all about would be a whole nother post, but it's basically a sub-culture set within a time based on a general British Victorian era where their take on what the future might look like is what is expressed.  ...  Okay, so that probably doesn't make sense, so that's why I made it a clickable link so those interested can find out more about it.  Anyhoo, it was an artful stylistic choice that added a timelessly old, yet nostalgically new vibe to the TOMMY fable that contributed to the richness of the show -- a show that recalls familiar tunes for many of us.

The Who's TOMMY at Stray Dog Theatre
(l to r) Anna Skidis, Josh Douglas, C.E. Fifer, Jeffrey M. Wright,
Austin Pierce, Antonio Rodriguez as TOMMY,
Paula Stoff Dean, Andrea Kimberling,
Ryan E. Glosemeyer, Sarah Porter.
(Photo credit: John Lamb)
Captain Walker (Jeffrey M. Wright) is sent off to war in 1940.  Presumed dead, his wife (Paula Stoff Dean) takes up with another man (C.E. Fifer).  When the captain unexpectedly comes home and finds his wife with another guy, a struggle ensues and the lover ends up dead -- all witnessed by the Walker's 4-year-old son, Tommy (Audrey Manalang).  Tommy is sternly told by his parents that he didn't see or hear anything ("What About the Boy"), and as a result of this taken to heart message, he ends up deaf, dumb and blind.  After a battery of tests by countless doctors (a clever little sequence among many), we are not only introduced to the 10-year-old Tommy (Braden Phillips), but we get confirmation that nothing can be done about the boy's condition.  Sexual abuses are also suffered by Tommy at the hands of his alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Josh Douglas) and constant bullying by his cousin Kevin (Ryan E. Glosemeyer), pushing Tommy further into his state of oblivion, until his cousin takes him to an arcade.  Here, his genious unleashes through a pinball machine ("Pinball Wizard").  He gains fame for this, and further fame once he is freed from his state by the smashing of a mirror by his frustrated mom.  Tommy, by this time, presented as the adult Tommy (Antonio Rodriguez), is a cult-hero.  But when one of his admirers is hurt in a rush to get closer to him, Tommy's reaction to instant fame and the reasons for that fame exposes the real message underneath this kind of tale -- a familiar one.  Followers wanting to be like a person, who only wants to be like everyone else.

When the original LP was made, times were turbulent and the music was loud, but the story of Tommy and his individualized yet universal journey is timeless.  Just like that steampunk vibe, and the beautiful tableau of the last snapshot of this musical that is relatable to everyone, on some level.

The Who's TOMMY at Stray Dog Theatre
(l to r, top) C.E. Fifer, Ryan E. Glosemeyer, Austin Pierce.
(l to r, bottom) Lindsey Jones, Andrea Kimberling,
Antonio Rodriguez as TOMMY, Sarah Porter, Anna Skidis.
(Photo credit: John Lamb)
Justin Been and Gary F. Bell's co-direction was tight and dead on.  4-year-old Tommy, a marvelous Audrey Manalang, and the 10-year-old Tommy, an impressive Braden Phillips, blew me away.  Very focused acting from these kids.  Not to mention the adult Tommy, a piercing Antonio Rodriguez, equipped with strong vocals, who held all of the captivating allure that made so much of this show successful.  Kudos also to Jeffrey M. Wright, a thoughtfully engaged Captain Walker with a charming tenor voice.  A perfectly paired Paula Stoff Dean as Mrs. Walker also had a rich performance and solid vocals.  The entire ensemble was top-notch and had a wonderfully harmonic sound, particularly later on in "Pinball Wizard".  Standouts include Josh Douglas as dirty old Uncle Ernie, and Anna Skidis as The Gypsy, who delivered an energetic number as "The Acid Queen".

This show wouldn't work at all without an excellent band and under Chris Petersen's musical direction, they brought all of the power you would expect in this show.  Projections by Justin Been, Tyler Duenow's lighting design, beautifully designed costumes by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley and sound design by audio engineer, Lucas Clopton, all worked seamlessly together, and J.T. Ricroft's choreography was great.

Getting the opportunity to see this classic told through the innovative interpretation of Stray Dog's co-directors, along with an impressive cast and technical crew shouldn't be passed up.  Check it out -- it's playing until the 22nd!


"Pinball Wizard" in The Who's TOMMY at Stray Dog Theatre
(top) Antonio Rodriguez as TOMMY,
(middle) Ryan E. Glosemeyer as Cousin Kevin.
(Photo credit: John Lamb)
THE WHO'S TOMMY

Book by Pete Townshend & Des McAnuff
Music/lyrics by Pete Townshend
Additional music & lyrics by John Entwistle & Keith Moon
Co-Directed by Justin Been and Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through October 22 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Antonio Rodriguez (Tommy), Jeffrey M. Wright (Captain Walker), Paula Stoff Dean (Mrs. Walker), Audrey Manalang (Tommy, Age 4), Braden Phillips (Tommy, Age 10), Ryan E. Glosemeyer (Cousin Kevin), Josh Douglas (Uncle Ernie), C.E. Fifer (The Boyfriend/Ensemble), Anna Skidis (The Gypsy/Ensemble), Kay Love (The Minister/Ensemble), Sarah Porter (Sally Simpson/Ensemble), Austin Pierce (Ensemble), Andrea Kimberling (Ensemble) and Lindsey Jones (Ensemble).

Creative:
Costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; scenic design by Justin Been & James Volmert, Jr.; scenic artist, Megan Henderson; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; projection design by Justin Been; audio engineer, Lucas Clopton; choreographer, J.T. Ricroft; hair & make-up stylist, Sarah Hitzel.

The Band:
Music direction/keyboard, Chris Petersen; drummer, Sean Lanier; electric bass, Michael Monsey; guitar I, Adam Rugo; synthesizer, Sallie Du Maine Cole.

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