BWW Review: TOMMY Puts the Pinball Wizard in a Spectacular Wonderland

BWW Review: TOMMY Puts the Pinball Wizard in a Spectacular Wonderland
Michael Valentine (Center) and the cast of TOMMY. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Genius is not a term to throw around lightly. Genius suggests distinctiveness and even superiority. Geniuses are people that are seldom matched in their field. It's a level that most of us strive to reach but never achieve.

Yet for director Dave Steakley, it's a well-deserved moniker. With his current production of Tommy, now playing at the Zach Theatre, Steakley pairs The Who's beloved rock-opera with the imaginative world of Alice in Wonderland. The result is a theatrical event that is impossible to forget.

Granted, Steakley's interpretation may initially sound a bit odd and even misguided. I will admit that when I first heard about his plans for Tommy, I had my doubts. Sure, The Who's concept album about a "blind, deaf, and dumb" pinball player is a complete acid trip, as is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, but what else do they have in common? I was almost certain that the production would be hampered by two discordant ideas that do not enhance or complement each other.

Then again, Steakley's the genius, and I'm not. In his hands, the stories of Tommy and Alice are inextricably intertwined. In Steakley's production, young Tommy is a fan of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and when he goes into shock after a traumatic childhood experience, his shock manifests in two ways. As in all productions of Tommy, the child becomes catatonic, but in this production, he also retreats into his imagination and now sees his world as Wonderland. He follows the White Rabbit (the energetic, break-dancing Gabriel "Wicket" Jaochico) through a mirror and into the storybook world of Lewis Carroll. Tommy now sees his parents (the wonderful Meredith McCall and Matthew Redden) as the White King and Queen, his cruel cousin Kevin (the multi-talented Timothy Ellis Riley) as the Cheshire Cat, and his drunken, sexually predatory Uncle Ernie (the boisterous Paul Sanchez) as the Mad Hatter.

What makes the Tommy/Alice marriage work so well is how deftly Steakley ties the two together. As Tommy goes deeper into shock in the early moments of the show, we see him fall deeper into the rabbit hole. When Tommy's molested by Uncle Ernie, we don't see it as a molestation at all but rather as an odd and quite disturbing episode involving a private tea party for two. Even "Pinball Wizard" starts not with pinball machines but with a game of croquet, hosted by the Queen of Hearts.

Steakley's creative team brilliantly brings Wonderland to life. Elements are borrowed from everything from John Tenniel's iconic Alice in Wonderland illustrations to sci-fi cinema to music videos to Clockwork Orange. The overall feel is both classic and contemporary. Susan Branch Towne's imaginative costumes dazzle and delight, as do Serret Jensen's wacky wigs and Scott Groh's clever props (the Acid Queen/Queen of Hearts's scepter is particularly ingenious). Jason Amato's lighting fantastically complements and completes the aforementioned visuals. Craig Brock's sound design nearly blows the roof off the Topfer Theatre, as is appropriate for a rock musical, and the on-stage band, under the direction of Allen Robertson, brings an intensity to the show's edgy score.

While it would be easy for the cast of any production this lavish to be overpowered by the design of the show (Lion King, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera) the cast of Tommy more than holds their own. The large ensemble is energetic from start to finish, and they ferociously tackle the numerous and quite challenging production numbers, choreographed by Robin Lewis. The men, in particular, are given some outstandingly athletic and acrobatic dance routines.

Tommy is truly an ensemble piece full of featured and cameo roles, and every single featured performer is noteworthy. Edward Burkley, Scott Swanson, and Paul Sanchez-who play the Judge, the Lover, and Uncle Ernie, respectively-all take advantage of the many moments in which they can show off their considerable pipes. Taylor Bryant plays Tommy groupie Sally Simpson with equal doses of innocence and teenage rebellion. As Cousin Kevin, Timothy Ellis Riley proves to be a strong singer and even stronger dancer. While small in stature, Susanne Abbott brings the house down as the Acid Queen/Queen of Hearts, and she brings a bit of Lady Gaga to the role. Meredith McCall and Matthew Redden are both well cast as Tommy's constantly worried parents. There's something fun about seeing the pair, who last appeared opposite each other in White Christmas, appear in a rock musical. And as the White Rabbit (the production's only Alice character to not have a double in Tommy's story), Gabriel "Wicket" Jaochico shines. As Tommy's guide, and ours as well, Jaochico exhibits a dynamic energy and personality, and his skills as a b-boy are unquestionable.

And of course, there's Michael Valentine as Adult Tommy. Valentine gives an impressive performance as Tommy, particularly in the second act where he has significantly more to do. Tall and good looking, it's easy to buy that Valentine could become an overnight sensation with a bevy of followers, but it's his voice that is truly remarkable. Powerful but still vulnerable, Valentine's voice is perfectly suited for the role. It's Valentine's unique riffs in the finale that make the last five minutes of the show absolutely breathtaking.

With not an element or performance out of place, this is a Tommy that, like the titular character, demands to be seen and heard. Feasts for the senses are rarely as filling as this. If Tommy were to ever have a Broadway revival (hint hint, Broadway producers), Steakley's concept and vision would easily please New York audiences and critics while rivaling the success of other blockbusters.

Running time: 2 hours, including one 20 minute intermission. TOMMY plays the Topfer Theatre at ZACH (202 South Lamar, Austin 78704) now thru August 24th. Performances are Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. Tickets are $25-$75. For tickets and information, visit

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From This Author Jeff Davis

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