Vista, CA--- The last time The Who’s “Tommy” was mounted in and around our fair city was a few years ago at the San Diego repertory Theatre in partnership with SCPA. It was a blockbuster. Before that The Who’s Tommy was performed locally 1992 when Pete Townshend (of the Who from 1962-1982) and Des McAnuff (former artistic director or the La Jolla Playhouse) staged its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
The musical soon moved to Broadway in 1993 where McAnuff directed it again and went on to win the coveted Tony and Oliver Awards for best direction. Many complain that it’s too loud! Yup! It’s a rock musical, and if anyone found it loud then, wait until you visit the outdoor theatre in Vista where Moonlight Stage Productions is wrapping up a more than successful summer season, under the leadership of Steve Glaudini, with this very same 1993 Tony Award winning Show.
It’s one of my favorites and I love the music: “The Overture”, “It’s A Boy”, “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Sensation”, “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” “See Me, Feel Me”, “Listening To You”, “I Believe My Own Eyes” and the list goes on.
Briefly, the story is about four year old Tommy Walker (Josh Bradford, the younger and Liam James Brandt, Tommy at 10)) who is traumatized when his World War II pilot father, Captain Walker (Jason W. Webb), who was presumed dead but was actually held in a POW camp, shows up one day at his home in London only to find Tommy’s mother (Misty Cotton) and her new lover in an embrace. In a fit of jealous rage the captain takes out his service revolver and shoots and kills her new lover.
Both mother and father turn to Tommy, who witnessed the entire altercation including the shooting. They shake him senseless in front of one of the mirrors on a door in the house trying to convince him that he saw nothing, traumatizing him to a zombie like state where he can’t see, hear, or speak. As a result, Tommy (Eddie Egan the adult Tommy) grows up deaf, dumb and blind for all intents and purposes but in his head he has visions and sensations that only we see and hear. (“Amazing Journey/Sparks”).
Over the years, as Tommy grows into his teen years and young adult life he is further traumatized by his relatives particularly cousin Kevin (Mark Bartlett who is frighteningly scary) who mocks him and abuses him and ‘Uncle Ernie’ (Paul Morgavo) who sexually molests him. (“Fiddle About, Fiddle About”).
That didn’t help the cure; it’s gross to watch something you know is going to happen and then it’s ok when all is said and done.
But cures for Tommy go on for years using both traditional and alternative forms of treatment, including a trip to The Isle of Dogs where he is introduced to The Acid Queen (a hot Anise Ritchie) and a little grown up TLC. (“Eyesight to the Blind”). Shock treatments, drugs, religion and psychiatry are all used but to no avail. (“There’s A Doctor”, “Listening to You”)
When Tommy’s cousin Kevin takes him to a youth club that has pinball machines as its main entertainment for the boys and girls Tommy’s life changes. He is brilliant at it, racking up scores higher and higher each and every time he plays. And… it begins the healing process by some miraculous (“I’m Free”) discovery through the feel of the machines. (“Tommy Can You Hear Me?”).
Tommy’s wizard achievements circulates and his claim to fame takes him on to becoming the “Pinball Wizard” where he finds himself in the middle of a feeding frenzy of admirers who want to be just like him. (“Tommy’s Holiday Camp”).
Moonlight’s 33rd season under Glaudini has been on average, one of daring (especially “Tommy”) and conventional family fun. According to Glaudini “The Wizard of Oz” was the best selling shows in the history of Moonlight. Lot’s of youngsters and family friendly, it was, to say the least the most colorful and exciting ‘Wizard’ but no doubt next season's "Mary Poppins"and "My Fair Lady" will prove to be blockbusters as well. "South Pacific" another favorite this year was high on the charts and "Shrek, The Musical" was fun. The results for this current show will come in as "Tommy"continues its run through Oct. 5th.
Loud as the music is, Dr. Terry O’Donnell’s five-piece orchestra perched high above the stage lacks edge and excitement that makes this rock opera , well… rock. I found myself wanting it to be more thrilling, cutting to the core and reaching into my gut. It didn’t. Chris Luessmann’s sound design works in concert, but not for those speaking parts; they’re muffled and blurred.
Lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier makes perfect use of spots, colored lights and shadows while original projections created by Wendall K. Harrington tell the story of Captain Walker without slowing the production down with the details. John Patrick’s sets and props are bulky but serviceable and everywhere there is a door. Doors come down from the lofts, slide in from the sides and are just there, as is the all-knowing mirror on the door that all three Tommy’s fade in and out of.
Director/choreographer John Vaughn must have pushed the speed button since the production clocked in at two hours. Some of the story did lose a bit of its heart in that translation. The good news is that the talent runs deep especially in the vocal department with a strong ensemble of young and agile performers who can sing, dance and give your toes reason to tap.
Eddie Egan is especially wonderful as the adult Tommy. His tenor voice is strong and he’s a fine and credible actor to boot. (I last saw him in "Next To Normal" at La Mirada and he was a knockout). Anise Ritchie is most effective as the Acid Queen (She also played this same role in the Rep's production) and mean as he was as cousin Kevin, Mark Bartlett is perfect in pitch, attitude and performance as is Paul Morgavo’s eerie and nasty, but colorful Uncle Ernie.
Misty Cotton and Jason W. Webber, both fine vocally but stretch as Tommy’s tormented parents. Everything moves so fast that giving any of the characters anything more than a two-dimensional look just doesn’t happen.
Costume coordination by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd and Carlotta Malone with costume designer Beaver Bauer shows the cast in conservative duds at the outset, but as the times push forward, the clothes get more and more outrageous, bazaar and colorful especially when Tommy is a rock star and his followers look more like they came right out of OZ.
As mentioned above “Tommy” with all its flaws, has a story to tell especially with the current headlines of children being bullied, abducted and having on line sex. Some might not be so inclined as to see it others might be turned off just by reason that it is a rock opera. It’s a flash from the past that worked.
No doubt Glaudini had his reasons for choosing it. It’s adult, it’s troubling it’s not for everyone and, in this reviewer’s opinion; it could be even more cutting edge and a bit more coherent. I applaud him for the stretch.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Oct. 5th
Organization: Moonlight Stage Productions
Production Type: Rock Opera
Where: Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale terrace Drive, Vista
Ticket Prices: $15.00-$50.00
Web: moonlightstage. com