The Chance Theater tackles its most ambitious musical yet with The Who’s Tommy. Under Oanh Nguyen’s inspired direction, the resulting production is quite possibly the Chance’s most thrilling musical ever, topping even last year’s Hair for visual and audio excitement.  With state-of-the-art sound, lighting, and video design and a couldn’t-be-better cast, The Chance’s The Who’s Tommy (quite a mouthful) achieves the nearly impossible. It replicates the rock concert/rock theater experience in a 49-seat house.  Spectacle and intimacy in equal measure—I can’t recall another show quite like it.


For post-Boomers, here’s a bit of Tommy background.

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.


Narrating Tommy’s story (and becoming Tommy himself in Act Two) is a terrific Mark Bartlett, combining looks and charisma aplenty with just the right rock pipes to do justice to Daltrey’s original vocals.  Bartlett is a Cal State Fullerton BFA student, and in fact, many of Tommy’s 18-member cast are either currently enrolled in (or recent graduates of) musical theater programs at some of the Southland’s finest training grounds including CSUF, UCLA, and UCI. The result is a production with the same youthful verve that has made Green Day’s American Idiot one of Broadway 2010’s most talked about hits.  At the same time, by casting the show’s older roles with age-appropriate actors, Nguyen avoids the “student production” feel that cast-too-young musicals can suffer from.  This is musical theater at its most professional, and a production that can stand up against the best Broadway has to offer, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The adults in the company are Wendi Ann Hammock (Mrs. Walker), Kevin Cordova (Captain Walker), and Beach Vickers (Uncle Ernie), and they are all three splendid.  Hammock and Cordova both have the vocal power and gravitas that their roles require, and Vickers is a hoot as dirty Uncle Ernie, his pedophilic “Fiddle About” alternately hilarious and squirm-inducing. 


In three of the show’s most exciting performances, Paul Hovannes is a dynamic Cousin Kevin, his rendition of “Pinball Wizard” as thrilling as the best of them, Miguel Cardenas (Hawker) belts out a bluesy “Eyesight To The Blind,” and Kyle Cooper (Specialist) shows of his own killer pipes in “Go To The Mirror Boy.” 

Among the ladies, there’s Chance Company Member Clarissa Barton adding her name to the illustrious list of divas who’ve sung “Acid Queen” (Patti LaBelle, Bette Midler and Tina Turner, to name just three) and holding her own against tough competition. Brynne McManimie stands out too as Tommy groupie Sally Simpson. 

Then there are the kids, 6-year-old Cameron McIntyre as Tommy Age 4 and 9-year-old Seth Dusky as Tommy Age 10, both as cute as can be.


Completing the stellar ensemble are Brian Bitner, Arroya Karian, Elena Murray, Melinda Porto, Kellie Spill, Seth Weiner, and Joshua Youngs, who work harder than just about any group of triple-threats on stage this summer.  Choreographer Allison Bibicoff keeps them all almost constantly in motion to the music, that is when their multiple-role tracks haven’t sent them quickly offstage to change costumes again and again and again.

Speaking of choreography, this is Bibicoff’s best and most exciting work yet, featuring dance steps that seem to be emerging organically from the music itself.  The combination of 1940s, ’50s, and ‘60s costumes and Bibicoff’s cutting-edge choreography make for a heady mix.

Musical director Mike Wilkins on piano and keyboard and his stupendous backup band (Stephen Musselman on guitar, Robert Bowman on bass, and Jorge Zuniga on drums) sound like three times that many as amplified to rock concert perfection by sound designer Casey Long. 

Christopher Scott Murillo’s first-rate set design replicates the rock concert look Tommy needs, and Erika C. Miller’s costumes are a dazzling blend of eras and styles, complemented by Julie Wilkins’ trendy hair and makeup design.


Finally there is KC Wilkerson’s lighting and video design, not only his best ever, topping even last summer’s Hair, but one of the most breathtaking blends of lights and video projections I can recall seeing.  

Tanae Beyer is stage manager, Robert Hahn assistant choreographer, and Chance Dean fight choreographer.

When you realize that the 20somethings who first rocked out to The Who’s Tommy are now (like Townsend and Daltrey) in their mid sixties, there’s hardly a theatergoer too old for Tommy, and with a cast of early-20somethings on stage, this is a show that’s right for anyone old enough to appreciate rock music.  If 2009’s Hair scored awards and nominations galore for The Chance, 2010’s The Who’s Tommy should do equally spectacularly when award season rolls around.  This production proves once again that The Chance is has no equal in Orange County intimate theater. Oanh Nguyen and company have blown away the competition with this spectacular feat of theatrical entertainment.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
July 3, 2010
                                                                           Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio


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