By Kay Kipling
For the close of their 2009-10 season, the Players Theatre clearly decided to go out with a bang. We’re talking a full-tilt, mind-blowing, sex-and-drugs-and-rock-n-roll show—in other words, The Who’s Tommy.
Those of us old enough to remember the original rock opera album by the famous band (that was 1969) or Ken Russell’s film version (1975) will have some basis of comparison with this stage version, which opened in the early 1990s with a book by Pete Townshend himself with Des McAnuff. Each version is somewhat different from the others, but they all have in common the well-known songs (See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You, Pinball Wizard, We’re Not Gonna Take It, etc.) and the story’s eponymous hero, that deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball.
Truett Tomlin, Zachary Lutz and Greg Weigers in The Who’s Tommy.
The stage production sticks more closely to Townshend’s somewhat autobiographical story, which takes place from 1940 (when Tommy’s parents meet and marry) to 1960 and includes scenes of Tommy’s abuse at the hands of a twisted “uncle” and the trauma that rendered him, as a very young boy, into that frozen psychological stage we see him in for much of the performance. Tommy, whether he’s played at the age of four (by Truett Tomlin), 10 (by Zachary Lutz) or as a young man (Greg Weigers, who also serves as a narrator here) wears a formal white suit—a sign of innocence, perhaps, and certainly a good look for stardom. Because of course that’s what Tommy becomes—first, when his pinball skills are discovered by the bullying kids on the block, and later, when he becomes an icon for the masses after a “miracle cure.”
It’s a large challenge to stage this piece, with its rock score (played with impressive energy by a four-piece band led by musical director Berry Ayers, although lyrics can sometimes be hard to discern) and numerous video projections telling the story with very little spoken dialogue. Technically and dramatically, Tommy
asks a lot of its cast and crew.
And much of it works. Besides the aforementioned band, Tommy bears some dynamic choreography by director Jared E. Walker, eye-popping costuming by Ellie Pattison and a set design by Kirk V. Hughes that features pieces easily and quickly moved on and offstage but still manages to take us to a variety of locations and time periods. Other pluses: the usual strong performances from local community theater stalwarts Steve and Dianne Dawson as Tommy’s parents, some good work from Scott Vitale and Leslie Dawley as the gruesome Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie, respectively, and the magnetic presence of Weigers in the title role.
At times, though, there is just so much movement going on (case in point: the turns by kids from the PAL Sailor Circus, who are talented but not really necessary here) that what we’re seeing can become confusing and chaotic, particularly in the second half of the show. Director Walker is juggling so many balls here that it’s hard to keep them all up in the air.
That said, Who fans and others who are looking for something very different from the usual local stage fare will probably find this production stimulating, to say the least. It continues through May 2; call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org.