TU's "Tommy": Deaf, Dumb and Blind

 ◊ 1/2 out of five.

When I was a young boy, I played my records as loud as I could, and remember vividly not being able to wait until my parents weren't home so I could crank it way up and lay in total darkness to really absorb the music.  I remember those 70's and 80's rock bands – Styx, Queen, and of course, The Who – their music was incredible AND told amazing stories.  Their music was as close to show tunes as you could get and still be "cool".  Fast forward to the early/mid 90's and Tommy opens on Broadway!  I couldn't believe it.  I loved it – saw it many times, still listen to the Cast Recording regularly.  A difficult piece, it is rarely performed.  Well imagine my delight when my inbox was hit with a press release for that very show at my alma mater, Towson University.  And imagine how excited I was to read that many of the most talented young people we have in this area were going to be in it and create it.  Now imagine how disappointed I am to report that save for a well performed score and five decent performances, that this production, which opened last night, is substandard at best. (NOTE: After this review was initially posted, it was brought to my attention that what I attended was a preview, not the opening.)

It should be acknowledged from the start that this show is entirely produced by, directed by and acted by students.  That said, I would hope that students would not be allowed such positions of power over a production if their department didn't support them and feel they could handle it.  And before I get deluged by emails chastising me for not remembering they are "just kids who are still learning," remember that they are charging admission and advertising the show like every other local production.  Plus, I have had the honest pleasure to see nearly every person involved either on stage or as an observer of their technical work.  And to varying degrees, they are very successful, destined to make it big in whatever career they choose. 

The band (Kenneth Hudson, Nick Jewett, R. Alex Kliner, James Mielke and Corey Zook) is extremely well suited to playing this amazing rock score.  There is absolutely no disputing that they not only play it, but play it well.  That that much sound comes out of just five musicians is almost stupefying. 

Five members of the cast really do the most they can do with their roles, considering the intentional and unintentional constraints under which they are working.  Danielle Robinette makes an excellent impression as the Acid Queen, viciously attacking her song with every fiber of her being.  Brad Burgess-Donaleski is so utterly creepy as Uncle Ernie, that swimming in a vat of hand sanitizer might not make you feel clean enough after being in his presence.  I will admit that at first I thought he was way over the top, but at least he brings some character and meaning to his time behind the microphone.  In the small, but pivotal role of Sally Simpson, Jaclyn Keough again shows how terrific she is.  She acts the hell out of her song, and really, truly understands the piece. 

Tori Katz, as Mrs. Walker, Tommy's mother, does more acting with her eyes than any three of the other actors.  It is very clear that she understands the emotional content of her songs and her place in the story.  But the best acting by far comes from Tommy himself, Ryan Haase.  Mr. Haase, so charming and powerful as Bobby Strong in Towson's production of Urinetown: The Musical, is equally mesmerizing here.  And this is no small fete, given that his character spends most of the show in a catatonic state, and most of his songs are internal monologues.  It is even more astounding given how comparatively small his stage time is in this production.  Mr. Haase clearly has a future in musical theatre should he so choose. 

And that, readers, is the good news.  All of it. 

In his director's notes, R. Alex Kliner warns us "the show you are about to enjoy is not musical theatre" - a bold statement and one that lets us know that this won't be Tommy as we've known it before.  He goes on to let us know that he has done his research – he knows there was an album, a Broadway show, and a movie, which he snarkily dismisses.  Forgive me Mr. Kliner, for though I agree with you that the film is questionable, aren't you just a tad young and inexperienced for wholesale dismissal of an iconic film?  He then goes on to let us know that this will be a "Dramatic Rock Concert" as if this were some revolutionary concept he himself came up with (I guess his research didn't include the famous Who "Happenings" where this piece was performed).  His priorities are set with his final statement: "I think you will have just as much fun listening to the music and watching the lights."  Ok, so for him, it is the music, not the story it is telling that is paramount.  An interesting choice for a director that for all the pretense of forgoing any theatrical conventions still has them, and for forgetting a key word in his own label – "Dramatic" at the same time. 

It is a harsh lesson to learn, but when the show comes off well, the actors get most of the credit, but when it stinks, it seems to be all the fault of the director.  Alas, here are a few lumps that this director will have to take.  Mr. Kliner, when he is leading roles, is an amazing actor.  His performance in The Adding Machine still haunts me, and his Prior Walter in Perestrioka remains one of the best I have seen of that role.  Well, Mr. Kliner, you really don't get much more "leading" than as the director and the conductor/keyboardist for the same production, but a good director knows that his recognition comes from the final product – his stamp is all over it.  And yet, you still don't seem satisfied, so you seat yourself prominently (he is the only musician fully in view, and he is not giving the singers cues) in the band box, and bathe the band frequently in light.  This certainly fits the "music" first take on the piece, but really comes off as an ego-stroking machination (even if you don't think you meant it that way), particularly when there are several instances when things are actually happening on the stage that are in complete darkness while the band plays on.  A supreme example of this is the final image of Tommy, finally free to live his life as he chooses, standing rock star-like atop the tallest part of the set in complete darkness, while you and your chums are glowing in bright yellow.  Of course, when the lights are up, not much is going on, either.  An hour and forty-five minutes of watching kids act like they are angry at the world gets mighty boring when all it consists of is smug staring at the audience, some swaying and all fourteen cast members keeping time with their right foot, knees akimbo.  Then again, when it dawned on me that we wouldn't be seeing much else, I REALLY looked closely.  One guy in the ensemble has apparently seen Spring Awakening, because he does a decent John Gallagher, Jr. impression when he thinks no one can see him.  Yet another young man has zero sense of timing, unable to keep time with his angry boot-clad foot, while mouthing the words the soloists are singing.  The ladies don't fair much better.  Apparently not a few of them started to realize that completely off the shoulder, ripped baggy tops would eventually start falling, while still others had trouble standing still in spike heels.  (Note to the costumers: dangly jewelry and waist chains were the fashion, and in theory looks awesome, but in practice, it gets stuck in wireless microphones…) 

Tommy, we can't feel you…

Despite the cheers and well-wishes I am sure were lavished upon everyone concerned following the show, all was not well in audience land.  And for once, every single complaint I heard was legitimate, and parallels my critique perfectly.  (I'll only burden you readers with the top five.) First, for trying to eschew any form of theatrical convention, the company was directed to make dramatic (read "angry"  and "rebellious") entrances and exits, by slamming in and out of doors that lead to brightly lit hallways.  100% of the time, this was distracting, and more than 50% of the time it was blinding.  Again, there are whole sections of the "dramatic rock concert" done with the stage in total darkness.  And Mr. Kliner, no curtain call?  I assume you are making A POINT, but really, no one gets it, and it seems heavy-handed and pretentious.  Be glad the audience wants to applaud your cast.

Second, there is almost nothing about the staging of this event that supports the story, making the synopsis, all four pages of it, crucial for following what is happening.  Unfortunately, we aren't seated with the band, so we can't read it most of time.  Also, even if all that was staged was the entire cast standing at microphones (like an actual concert), there would still be ways to move people and/or have them look at each other in order to understand the relationships, if not the physical actions of the characters.  There are at least six scenes where Tommy is a part of the action, based on the lyrics alone, but is conspicuously absent from the stage.  The most inexcusable of these times are when Tommy is not there to "witness" the murder of his mother's lover, causing him to be "deaf, dumb and blind." THIS IS THE MAJOR PLOT POINT!  (He is also nowhere to be seen when Uncle Ernie molests him, making that song senseless; ditto Cousin Kevin's self-titled number.) 

Tommy we can't touch you… you aren't even there!  

Third, the costuming (designed by Emily Levin) reminded me (and several audience members) of Halloween, where kids dress up as kids from another era.  In an effort to modernize, I suppose, they went with 80's punk rock, rather than the 60's/70's British punk look.  Bobby Libby, as Cousin Kevin, was trying to do his baddest bad ass characterization – I'm guessing he was going for Sid Vicious or even Billy Idol, but he really looked like George Michael in the "Faith" era.  Others in the ensemble were maybe trying for the rest of the Sex Pistols, maybe The Clash, but looked like Duran Duran just before their first break up.  And the girls, trying so hard to look naughty were various 80's Madonnas, a half way decent Pat Benatar, and The Bangles.  Despite the gallons of hair gel, and generous amounts of eyeliner (hair and make up by Brittany A. Morris and Sara Farrell), little kids playing dress up are still all it looked like.  The set (designed by Ryan Haase and Emily Levin) also seems confused between being a rock concert and being a stage set.  The studio theatre is a black box (not a bad choice of venue, actually) with a pattern painted on the floor in bright yellow, and the entire wire casing on the wall painted similarly. The stage is a series of graduated platforms, framed in metal with microphone stands placed around them.  A large piece of chain link fence makes up the back wall, where many of the lights are hung.  Are we at a rock concert or inside a pinball machine? The lighting (designed by Justin Van Hassell) I am thinking was also cross between rock concert lighting and the idea that we were inside Tommy's pinball machine.  I love good lighting effects (that blue pattern swirling around Tommy as he begged "see me, feel me, etc." was pretty cool) and applaud attempts at creativity with them.  But the majority of the lights just flickered on and off, and were aimed directly at the audience.  I'll even go so far as to say that the first half dozen times we were blinded by the light were cool, but after awhile it was annoying - not nearly as annoying, though, as spending several minutes watching things happen on stage, bathed in total darkness.  It is like being invited to a party, then being told to watch it through a closed window. 

Tommy we can't see you…

But the biggest issue I (and nearly the entire audience) have is the fact that not a word of the lyrics could be heard, unless Tommy was doing his "see me, feel, me, etc." or the music wasn't playing so that a few choice lines could be recited.  And I don't mean you could occasionally make out a few words here and there; you couldn't hear 98% of what anyone sang.  The five member band was amplified way too much and all of the sound was coming from the same place – upstage where the band played.  If there were floor monitors or speakers elsewhere aimed at the seats, I couldn't see them, and if they were there than the problem is even worse.  I suppose we should be glad we could "have just as much fun listening to the music and watching the lights." 

Tommy we can't hear you… 

Try as he might to let us think all is ok without emphasizing the story, Mr. Kliner's concept doesn't work.  As he smartly points out in his notes, The Who's Tommy is a rock opera, but he seems to have forgotten the "opera" part – that is a huge, emotional story.  The "Amazing Journey" the Who promises us with Tommy is gone here.  A vanity production of self-serving direction is frighteningly in its place.  And so the director got his wish, more rock than theatre.  And like Tommy, we all had a chance to be deaf, dumb and blind.

 

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Towson University.  TOP to BOTTOM: The Cast of Tommy; Brad Burgess-Donalseki as Uncle Ernie; Jaclyn Keough as Sally Simpson; Ryan Haase as Tommy; and The Finale of Tommy.



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