The much awaited revival of The Who’s Tommy has finally arrived in a spectacular production featuring a sensational cast and the best sound ever in L.A. theater.
Broadway’s wonderful Alice Ripley brings class and her Tony nominated voice to the role of Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Walker, but it is Aleks Pevek, in his first major role, who delivers the performance of the evening as Tommy, and a star-making powerhouse performance it is.
The Who’s Tommy began its life as a 1969 two-disk concept album by The Who, which spawned several Top 40 hits including “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.” Composed mostly by Pete Townshend and featuring vocals by Roger Daltrey, Tommy was the first musical work to bear the now oft-used (and abused) name “rock opera.” Ken Russell’s 1975 film version starred Daltrey as Tommy and Ann-Margaret as his mother, and the stage version being revived here debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1993.
In Townshend and Des McAnuff’s book, 4-year old Tommy sees his father, just returned from World War II imprisonment, shoot and kill Mrs. Walker’s lover, and goes “deaf, dumb, and blind” (though it is not until he turns 10 that he “sure plays a mean pinball.”) Tommy (The Rock Opera) follows Tommy’s journey through life, his celebrity as a “Pinball Wizard,” the eventual recovery of his sight, and his ultimate embracing of a normal family life.
Personally, I find much of Townshend’s score rather bland (the hits being notable exceptions) and Tommy’s life as presented in Townshend/McAnuff’s book lacks the emotional hook which would make me more than a neutral observer. Fortunately, these criticisms end up minor vis-à-vis the current production, which more than makes up for the work’s shortcomings with its visual and auditory brilliance and the all-around excellence of its cast.
A word about the sound. For the first time in my recollection, audience members hear Townshend’s score through Bose around-ear headphones in what is billed as “3-D Sound, presented by EXP3D.” (Bravo to sound designer James Johnson.) The results are nothing short of amazing, like listening to a live recording on CD while watching it performed live, as if the cast and orchestra were performing for you and you alone.
Nona Hendryx of Labelle fame shares star billing with Ripley, but she has only one song, “Acid Queen,” and though she sings it with force, the show belongs to Ripley, Pevec, and some truly sensational supporting players. Rock-star-ready P.J. Griffith gives Tommy a run for his money as Cousin Kevin, Tom Schmid sings beautifully as Tommy’s father, Hank Adams has lots of fun as icky Uncle Ernie, and Ronny Drayton is a powerful Hawker. Jenna Leigh Green of Wicked fame makes an eleventh hour appearance as Sally Simpson to her fans’ delight. 13-year-old Lorenzo Doryon is impressive in a nearly wordless performance as 10-year-old Tommy.
Director Brian Michael Purcell and choreographer Denise Leitner deserve major kudos for making this stage production of The Who’s Tommy so much more than it is on CD, and they are aided by the work of a superior design team: Brodie Alan Steele’s multilevel industrial rock-concert-ready set, Jared A. Sayeg’s psychedelic lighting design, and Vandy Scoate’s imaginative costumes. Dan Redfeld leads a powerful 10 piece orchestra.
Tommy is truly an ensemble show, with each of its triple-threat supporting cast members shining in multiple roles. They are Kelly Allen, LJ Benet, Doug Crawford, Daniel Guzman, Christina Harding, Jamie Joseph, Kim Lesley, Gakenia Muigai, Emmie Nagata, Clifton Oliver, Julius Rubio, Anna Schnaitter, Leah Seminario, Erin Stoddard, Salvatore Vassallo, Kyle Vaughn, and John Williford.
As this is a very limited run, tickets are likely to be snapped up fast, so I highly recommend making reservations asap. This production of The Who’s Tommy would be worth seeing if only to hear its 3-D sound. The performances and the technical brilliance which surrounds them make it a must see.
Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 Vine Street, Hollywood.
June 20, 2008
Photos: Ryan Miller at Capture Imaging