The Playhouse closes season with ‘The Who’s TOMMY’

A sentimental rock opera ends The Playhouse’s season - SIGGI RAGNAR
Siggi Ragnar
A sentimental rock opera ends The Playhouse’s season

When rock opera first evolved, out of the tumultuous counterculture of the late 1960s, it seemed to many a refreshingly populist alternative to the magniloquence of grand opera. Stage productions such as Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell (1971) appropriated the idioms and instrumentation of popular music to the kind of bombastic storytelling perfected by Wagner and Verdi. Rent (1994) was in fact a translation of Puccini’s La Bohème into a contemporary setting and the vernacular of contemporary pop, though the usual ensemble of guitar, bass, drum and keyboard cannot capture the tonal range of a full symphony orchestra or the virtuosity of classically trained voices.

Released in 1969, as a concept album, Tommy was the first work marketed explicitly as rock opera. The flamboyant British director Ken Russell adapted it into film in 1975, but, though The Who performed in concert the songs they had created for Tommy, it was not until 1992 that The Who’s TOMMY (note the swagger of the title, including the hyperbolic majuscules; no serious theater would offer Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT) was presented as a complete stage drama. The final production of the current season at The Playhouse, The Who’s TOMMY is the coming-of-age story of a young man who, as a result of a violent shock—witnessing his father shoot to death his mother’s lover—loses the ability to hear, speak and see.

Like the Greek myth of Philomela, it is the story of silence induced by trauma. As in Sleeping Beauty, maligned innocence eventually awakens. And like Candide, it is what Tommy Walker himself calls “the amazing journey” of a guileless young man through a wicked world. In the fate of Tommy, who overcomes his handicaps to become a pinball sensation, ripe for exploitation, rock star Pete Townshend offers a knowing critique of the contemporary culture of celebrity. Yet despite its resonant themes, this 45-year-old rock opera seems more antiquated than Don Giovanni, five times its age. Except for a few echoes of blues and gospel, the music, which is continuous throughout the production, is monotonous pop album. The lyrics are trite, their rhymes often forced—“There’s more at the door” is embarrassingly flat the first time it is sung, and downright annoying sung over and over. The central conceit of the drama, that a Helen Keller-like boy becomes a wizard at playing pinball, is implausible and inane.

Nevertheless, director Rick Sanchez’s production is a triumph of performance over text. Alfy Valdez’s ingenious set, a playground, places everything within the context of lost childhood. Costumer Jenifer Andrews effectively utilizes clothing and makeup to mark the passage of time in London from 1940-1965. Lizel Sandoval’s choreography quickens the plot with vivid movements. As for the performers, it is hard to single out individuals—other than Captain and Mrs. Walker (Jason L. Mosher and Sara Brookes, respectively) and the three successive incarnations of their son Tommy—from an energetic and talented ensemble, most of whom manage to belt out their lines in a credibly English accent. As four-year-old Tommy, six-year-old Evan Souksamlane steals his scenes without uttering a word. Daniel Quintero’s 10-year-old Tommy is suitably impassive. But as grown-up Tommy, an intermittent narrator, Isidro Medina anchors the production flawlessly. In a much smaller role, Rebecca Trinidad delivers a show-stopping performance as a character tactlessly called “The Gypsy.” A gaudy harlot who all but convinces Captain Walker that a night with her will heal his son, she roars out a rendition of the bluesy “Acid Queen” that could wake up Janis Joplin. Omar A. Leos Uncle Ernie is a charming pedophile, and James Welch as Cousin Kevin personifies the tackiness of an Elvis-era would-be hood.

Though its protagonist remains mute for most of the piece, The Who’s TOMMY is a noisy concoction. Like a piece of prose that ends each sentence with an exclamation point, almost everything is bellowed, to the interminable beat of a drum, at full throat. The booming balderdash might in itself be enough to make a sensitive boy deaf. However, for all its brassy attitude, this grandiose opera is shamelessly sentimental. Recovered, Tommy preaches to his fans–and the audience–that he is no guru, that each of us must embark on an “amazing journey” of our own. Two decades of abuse, The Who’s TOMMY suggests at the end, can be washed away by a single purifying hug. “All You Need Is Love,” sang the Beatles two years before The Who released their concept album. With its varied meters, unexpected instrumentation, and echoes of everything from “La Marseillaise” to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” John Lennon’s bittersweet song, by contrast, remains something grand.

The Who’s TOMMY

8pm Fri-Sat, 3pm Sun
Russell Hill Rogers Theater
The Playhouse
800 W Ashby
(210) 733-7258
Through Aug. 24

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