A fabulous, primarily Asian-American cast, design elements with a Far East flavor, and a 1960s-though-‘80s time frame that inspires a slew of innovative costumes and choreography …
All of this (and more) add up to an exciting East West Players revival of the now iconic The Who’s Tommy.
Preceding Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s two-disc Jesus Christ Superstar LP by a year and Green Day’s American Idiot by thirty-five, The Who’s 1969 double-LP concept album-turned movie musical-turned Broadway hit was not only the first musical work to bear the name “rock opera,” it maintains its power to excite an audience even four-and-a-half decades after its initial release, as EWP’s Snehal Desai-directed production makes abundantly clear.
Desai’s most inspired touch may be his decision to fast-forward Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff’s book from the film and Broadway adaptations’ mid-1940s-through-mid-‘60s backdrop to one beginning two decades later.
Anti-Vietnam War protestors have already begun crowding London streets with their “Make Love Not War” message when Captain Walker (Cliffton Hall) meets, falls for, marries, and impregnates Mrs. Walker (Deedee Magno Hall), then gets shipped off for combat duty in faraway Southeast Asia.
News of her husband’s MIA status eventually sends the Captain’s lonely wife into the arms of a hunky Lover (Cesar Cipriano), with whom she enjoys a series of illicit trysts, the last of which gets interrupted by the surprise arrival of her just-released (and conveniently armed) ex-POW hubby.
Sadly for the young marrieds, not only does Captain Walker fatally wound his wife’s inamorato in the ensuing scuffle, 4-year-old Tommy (Araceli Prasarttongosoth) witnesses the shooting, the sight of which transforms him into The Who’s Tommy’s “deaf, dumb, and blind kid,” though it is not until we meet the lad as a 10-year-old (Michayla Brown) that Tommy first “plays a mean pinball.”
Told almost entirely in song and dance in a style soon to be dubbed the “sung-through musical” in hits like Miss Saigon and Les Miz, The Who’s Tommy follows its title character’s journey through life, his celebrity as a “Pinball Wizard,” the eventual recovery of his hearing and sight, and his ultimate embrace of a so-called normal life.
Also figuring in Tommy’s coming of age are his sadistic bully of a cousin (Ryan Castellino as Cousin Kevin), his lecherous pedophile of an uncle (Parvesh Cheena as Uncle Ernie), a drug-dealing prostitute with possible healing powers (Constance Jewell Lopez as The Gypsy, aka The Acid Queen), teenage Tommy’s most excitable, crush-driven female fan (Cailan Rose as Sally Simpson), and a castful of soldiers, nurses, hookers, guards, reporters, and assorted London lads and lasses brought to life by Marius Beltran (Mr. Simpson), Caitlyn Calfas (Mrs. Simpson), Cipriano, Maxwel Corpuz (Hawker, Minister), Michael Dashefsky (Pinball Lad), Christine de Chavez (Specialist), Tina Nguyen (Violin Player), and Rose.
With director Desai bringing out the very best in his cast of performers (in addition to making ingenious use of scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s all-night-rave-ready set throughout), it’s hard to imagine a more exciting musical theater ensemble, Asian-American or otherwise, beginning with a stellar Morales, once again proving himself the utterly winning triple-threat he was in his Scenie-wining SoCal debut as Usnavi in the First National Tour of In The Heights. Not only that, but this time round Morales gets to show off some killer pipes, hitting song writer Townshend’s highest notes to perfection in “Amazing Journey,” “Sensation,” “I’m Free,” and more.
Real-life marrieds Hall and Hall bring their Broadway/National Tour star quality and superb vocals to the roles of Captain and Mrs. Walker, hitting their own firmament-reaching notes in “Do You Think It’s All Right?” “I Believe My Own Eyes,” and “Smash The Mirror.”
Cheena, whose scene-stealing turn in a trio of roles in EWP’s A Widow Of No Importance won him a Best Featured Actor Scenie, vanishes into Uncle Ernie’s creepy-crawly skin, his “Fiddle About” proving every bit as squirm-inducing as it’s supposed to be, then returning to show-stopping effect with a deliciously interactive “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.”
Castellino’s charismatic Cousin Kevin brings down the house with “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” and the Act One-climaxing “Pinball Wizard,” the latter of which has him joined to stunning effect by the dynamic duo of Cipriano and Dashefsky.
Corpuz hits some high notes himself as Hawker in “Eyesight To The Blind” (joined on the violin by string whiz Nguyen) while Specialist de Chavez rocks the stratosphere with “Go To The Mirror Boy.”
Rose takes centerstage in Act Two as a delightfully piquant Sally (and gets to sing and dance “Sally Simpson” about none other than herself).
As for Lopez, though her kimono-clad Gypsy gets only one scene and one song, it’s a doozy as the Scenie, Ovation, and LADCC award winner sells “Acid Queen” with the best of them, and that includes the movie’s Tina Turner herself.
Pint-sized charmers Brown and Prasarttongosoth convince us that they are a) boys and b) “deaf, dumb, and blind,” which is no mean feat. (Van Brunelle is 4-year-old Tommy swing.)
Choreographer Roston gives her indefatigable, triple-threat-tastic ensemble (one that also includes Beltran and Calfas’s terrific Mr. and Mrs. Simpson) abundant fancy footwork in dance number after dance number, and unlike Tommys past, this one integrates groovy ‘70s and ‘80s moves.
And speaking of decades past, costume designer Jenny Foldenauer once again scores top marks for her abundant imagination and flair. (The 1960s through ‘80s have never looked more eye-catching in more costume changes than I could possibly count.)
Musical director Marc Macalintal makes everyone sound sensational as accompanied by the production’s live six-piece band: Macalintal on keys, Janeen Apodaca on French horn, Michael Boerum on drums, Khris Kempis on bass guitar, Vince Reyes on lead guitar, and Christopher Spilsbury on second guitar—and Cricket S. Myers mixes musicians and the cast’s amped vocals like the Tony-nominated sound designer she is.
Schwartz’s striking scenic design is expertly complemented by property master Marissa Bergman’s abundant array of props and most especially by Karyn Lawrence’s flashy, Vegas-ready lighting design and Sean T. Cawelti’s dazzlingly psychedelic projections.
Ondina V. Dominguez stage manager and VIVIS is assistant stage manager. Ruffy Landayan is assistant director.
Additional program credits are deservedly awarded to assistant choreographer Michael Quiett, fight choreographer Cipriano, assistant costume designer Holly Holcolmb, sound engineer Christian Lee, and many more.
From today’s 60-70something Baby Boomers (in their teens and twenties when Tommy began its life) to Generation Xers and Millennials, The Who’s Tommy remains a rock musical for the ages (and for all ages).
If its multiple hits don’t inspire you to lip-sync along throughout the show, then the creative talent brought together by East West Players will at the very least have you joining in for the production’s “See Me, Feel Me” stand-up-and-sing-along grand finale, one that ends The Who’s Tommy’s on a soaringly high note indeed.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
May 13, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont