BWW Reviews: The Short North Stage Brings Pinball Wizard, TOMMY, to Local Stage
I love the Short North Stage for several reasons. First, they have boldly devoted themselves to resuscitating the nearly flatlined Short North theater scene, saving an iconic historic theater in the process. Second, more often than not, they embrace the eccentric, edgy flavor that makes the Short North remarkable, rather than conforming to traditional theater fare. That's where "The Who's Tommy" gets it right- it is edgy, fierce, and at times, electric. The rock opera, which premiered in 1983 with lyrics and music by The Who's Pete Townshend is a virtually dialogue free story of a 4 year old boy who becomes essentially catatonic after witnessing his presumed dead father kill his mother's lover upon returning unexpectedly from WWII. Young Tommy (played by an adorably wide-eyed, but obviously inexperienced Christian Giannone) becomes an accidental sensation once he discovers his talent for pinball.
While his mother (Emily Brockway) and father (David Bryant Johnson) struggle to free their son from his self-induced deaf, dumb, and blind state, Tommy's story continues as he becomes a 10 year old (Griffin Giannone)who is sexually assaulted by his creepy Uncle Ernie (Ryan Stem) and bullied unmercifully by his wicked cousin Kevin (Josh Houghton), both of which are casually forgiven and embraced in the final scence- what? The cast is helped dramatically by the addition of some truly skilled dancers- Columbus Moving Company founder, Jeff Fouch, former Broadway Billy Elliot, Tommy Batchelor, and professional choreographer, Karlie Sites, who front the ensemble and fill the many dance numbers with technical skill that helps pass the lack of dialogue off without being dull. Kendra Lynn Lucas (Acid Queen), and Stephanie Jenkins (Sally Simpson) lead the big ensemble vocally, which also contains Riley Able, Jason Carl Crase, Cody Shope, Kaitlin Descutner, Adam Mesker, and Shawn Storms.
The production is coherent, though at times slower paced than necessary, but overall solid. A modern, stark white set designed by Rob Kuhn is both contemporary and universal, and contrasts delightfully with well-done period costumes by Edward Carnigan, who also directs and choreographs the production. Video effects on a large screen above the set transition scenes and provide a funky-MTv feel that fits the genre. However, dramatically, there are pieces that are less than stellar. JJ Parkey as adult Tommy, was fantastic earlier this season in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", but stripped of dialogue in this show, seemed quite bland, sadly, and I found him largely non-compelling, save a bewildered "I'm Free" late in Act II, and a desperate "We're Not Gonna Take It", the last number before the finale. Rather than Tommy, David Bryant Johnson's Captain Walker proved the most fascinating character to watch, layered with anger, guilt, remorse, and withdrawal, complemented by strong vocals and Emily Brockway's on-the-edge stoicism. The best number of the show certainly goes to the highly-recognized "Pinball Wizard", a glitzy, well-choreographed and well-sung number that delivered the expected electricity The Who's original music was known for. The technical elements of the show- Lighting by Rob Kuhn and Musical Direction by P.Tim Valentine are well executed, despite some first-night glitches with set pieces and props that need tweaked.
"The Who's Tommy" was a great selection for the Short North Stage, and did a terrific job of showcasing local talent, but while the almost half of the cast that is not local certainly enhanced the production, one of my consistent disappointments is that the Short North Stage continues to look beyond the local artistic community to round out its cast and production teams. They have the potential to produce "Broadway in your Backyard" caliber shows with exclusively Columbus-based talent, I am sure of it, and it seems to regretfully detract from their overall mission to do otherwise, despite the outcome of a largely well-done production.
That said, what the Short North Stage sets out to do with "The Who's Tommy" is not only an admirable return to a thematically "right" production for its spot in Columbus' live theater scene, but a talent-filled, and enjoyable show- baby steps, largely in the right direction.
The Short North Stage presents, "The Who's Tommy", now through Sunday, April 27th. For information on location, show times, and tickets, please go to: http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/230 .
Photo Credit: Heather Wack.