BWW Reviews: TOMMY is Packed with Rocking Vocals
Excuse me if I'm suffering from a case of déjà vu. Last year, theatergoers in Central Texas got to see Austin's Zach Theatre and San Antonio's Playhouse duke it out with competing productions of Les Miserables. I was fortunate enough to see both productions, and in the battle of the barricades, I declared a draw. Naturally, Zach and The Playhouse's current production of The Who's Tommy feels like a rematch. So which has the pinball wizard winner? The answer is: both. While Zach's production is a feast for the senses, The Playhouse's production places its focus squarely on its awe-inspiring cast.
Like the rock concept album upon which it was based, Tommy tells the story of a young man who, after witnessing a murder, becomes numb to the world, apparently blind, deaf, and dumb. While the neighboring production goes for an eye-popping fantasy/sci-fi aesthetic, The Playhouse's team takes an approach that is far more natural but no less effective. Alfy Valdez's set combines a children's playground, a giant pinball machine, and rock concert scaffolding and lighting. The pieces shouldn't fit, but remarkably they do. Costumer Jenifer Andrews does a fantastic job of showcasing a passage of time through her designs. The show spans the 1940s thru 1960s, but regardless of the decade, Andrews's costumes are colorful and stunning.
Director Rick Sanchez does a fine job at keeping the story grounded. While Tommy has some incredible music, it's not a show with strongly defined characters or relationships, and Sanchez tries to define those relationships as much as he can. Tommy's parents seem far more engaged in Tommy's struggle in this production than they do in most other productions or in the film (though the latter's not surprising considering how in the film, Tommy's momma is more interested in baked beans than she is in her own son).
But while Sanchez succeeds at creating a clearer family dynamic between Tommy and his parents, he backs away from addressing Tommy's extended family. Anyone who's so much as heard the original concept album knows that Tommy's sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie and physically abused by his cousin, Kevin. Ernie and Kevin's numbers are arguably the most important ones in the show, and Sanchez's staging of them is, sadly, on the tame side. Ernie and Kevin sing about what they want to do to Tommy, but we never see it. We need to see their torture of Tommy. Since Tommy's condition prevents him from reacting to anything, the audience is his surrogate. We react for him, but the staging gives us little to react to in these pivotal moments.
Once again though, it's the music and not the story or characters that carries Tommy. Naturally, a rock musical with a score by The Who should have a powerful sound, and had The Playhouse not had roof-related problems a year ago (their roof underwent repairs after a massive rainstorm), I'd say this production blows the roof off the place. The 8 piece band under the direction of Andrew Hendley is electric, and sound designer Pat Smith does a fantastic job of giving the music an extra bit of oomph. It's subtle, but some money notes get a little digital crescendo, courtesy of Smith. The choreography, by Lizel Sandoval, is just as rocking and energetic as the music. Her choreography of "Pinball Wizard" is especially fun to watch.
What truly makes The Playhouse's production of Tommy spectacular is the cast. Sara Brookes and Jason L. Mosher both showcase their powerful voices as Tommy's parents, especially Brookes in her angsty, rage-fueled solo "Smash the Mirror." As Cousin Kevin, James R. Welch energetically belts his big number. He truly pours everything he's got into his performance. The only problem with his solo is that it's challenging to see him as his spotlight moment is in desperate need of a spotlight.
As Adult Tommy, Isidro Medina is a force of nature. His voice seems tailored to rock music, and I'd argue that he'd be able to out-sing The Who's Roger Daltrey. Medina can belt like nobody's business, and there's a passionate intensity to his performance. Teenager Daniel Quintero is equally impressive as the younger Tommy. Though he doesn't get to sing much, Quintero's acting leaves quite an impression. While Tommy may not be able to outwardly react to anything, it's clear that there's something going on in his head. You can see him process what's going on around him despite his inability to outwardly show it, and that's all due to Quintero's gifts as an actor.
But the biggest surprise of the production is Rebecca Trinidad as The Acid Queen. It's not shocking that Trinidad would be good. If you've seen a musical in San Antonio in the last two years, odds are Trinidad was in it, and she always is of any production she appears in. However, she usually has a classic Broadway style voice. Hearing her tackle an iconic rock number with grit and power is completely unexpected, and she even rocks the hell out of her lingerie/Stevie Nicks robe outfit too.
Like their production of Spring Awakening last year, The Playhouse's production of Tommy shows that the company is more than capable of producing a rollicking rock musical. The success of Tommy is a testament to the truly underrated talent of the San Antonio theater community. Buy tickets to this one. It's sure to entertain.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
TOMMY plays The Playhouse (800 West Ashby Place, San Antonio 78212) now thru Sunday, August 24th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $10-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.theplayhousesa.org