Interview: Avon Native John Ambrosino Makes his Broadway Debut in THE WHO'S TOMMY

Rock opera revival is now at New York's Nederlander Theatre

By: Apr. 19, 2024
Interview: Avon Native John Ambrosino Makes his Broadway Debut in THE WHO'S TOMMY
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Interview: Avon Native John Ambrosino Makes his Broadway Debut in THE WHO'S TOMMY

While a student at Thayer Academy in Braintree, actor, singer, and director John Ambrosino saw his earliest Broadway shows – from “Sunset Boulevard” to “Victor/Victoria” and, in his senior year, “Titanic” with Brian D’Arcy James, brother of the school’s then Head of Drama, Anne James.

Later this month, current Thayer students as well as faculty and alumni will be in New York to see Ambrosino in his Broadway debut as the lecherous Uncle Ernie in the current revival of “The Who’s Tommy” at the Nederlander Theatre.

Based on the 1969 concept album “Tommy” by the Who, the story was originally adapted into the 1975 feature film “Tommy,” starring Ann-Margret, Elton John, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, and, in the title role, Roger Daltrey. The rock musical – with music, lyrics, and book by Pete Townshend – was originally presented on Broadway in 1993 in a production directed by Des McAnuff, who co-wrote the book with Townshend, and won five Tony Awards that year.

The current 30th-anniversary revival broke all box office records at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last summer in a production once again directed by McAnuff. Fueled by anthems including “I’m Free,” “See Me, Feel Me,” “Sensation,” and “Pinball Wizard,” the show tells the story of the young Tommy Walker who, after witnessing his father shoot a romantic rival, is lost in the world, endlessly and obsessively staring into the mirror. An innate knack for pinball catapults him from reticent adolescent to celebrity savior.

Ambrosino’s own childhood was spent in Avon, and in Scituate during the summer months. A 1997 graduate of Thayer, Ambrosino earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 2001. After college, he returned to the Boston area to found Animus Ensemble, a Boston Center for the Arts-based theater company where he directed nine productions including “The Baltimore Waltz,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” and “Promises, Promises,” which earned him an Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) nomination as Best Director.

After spending six years as co-artistic director for Animus, Ambrosino decided it was time to focus on acting, not just directing. He was subsequently cast in three roles at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston – Bobby in “Company,” Baker in “Into the Woods,” and Gabey in “On the Town.” He also played Mark in “Rent” at the New Repertory Theatre, Miss Deep South in “Pageant” at the Stoneham Theatre, now the Greater Boston Stage Company, and Oscar D’Armano in “The Wild Party” at the Provincetown Theater.

In addition to playing the title role in the first national tour of “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley,” and spending more than two years on the road as Bamatabois in “Les Misérables,” Ambrosino also played Bob Crewe in the Las Vegas sit-down run of “Jersey Boys,” where he first worked with McAnuff, who directed that show.

Ambrosino, one of three Massachusetts natives connected to the revival of “The Who’s Tommy” – along with Pittsfield native Ali Louis Bourzgui, who plays the title character, and Dee Tomasetta, associate choreographer, swing, and dance captain, who grew up in Worcester and Milbury – spoke by telephone from his home in New York recently about his career today, shared memories of his years in Boston, and more.

How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut?

It feels amazing – like a dream really. All actors fight daily to achieve this dream. As you’re working to make it happen, you can’t help but think to yourself, “Is this going to be real or a pipe dream?” Now that it’s real – it is great on every level.

What first got you interested in pursuing a career in acting and directing?

I was raised in a family of doctors and medical professionals so I thought I’d be a doctor. In fact, in high school, I planned to be pre-med when I went to college. When I met with my guidance counselor, though, she said, “You’re not going to study theater?” I did two plays and one musical every year I was at Thayer – including shows like A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” and David Ives’s “All in the Timing,” and the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical “Once on This Island” – so the guidance counselor had a point. I’m glad I changed my major, but there have been days when I’ve thought, “Should I have been pre-med?”

How did your current assignment come about?

A few years ago now, word got out that there might be a “Tommy” revival. I’ve listened to the album many times and I always came away wanting to play Uncle Ernie. The role is just a match for me and I knew, if the revival came to be, that I needed to be seen for it. Merri Sugarman, the casting director, saw me first and then Des, whose note on my audition was that he didn’t want to see the action, he wanted Uncle Ernie to be all internal. I immediately thought to myself, “You’re not going to get this job,” because I couldn’t figure out what to do with what Des wanted. Ultimately, I did, however, and I landed the part.

As a child molester, Uncle Ernie is far from a likeable character. How is that to play for an actor?

What I find interesting about bad guys is that you’re playing against the actors’ instinct, which is to be liked. In reality, most of the time bad people don’t present themselves in that way. I knew Keith Moon had been kind of campy as Uncle Ernie, providing comic relief in the movie. And I knew I wanted to play him as real, so I watched hours and hours of news and documentary interviews with pedophiles – about 80 percent of whom were remorseful and sorry.

My backstory for Ernie is that his limp is from polio and that he was an odd child. And that he didn’t get to fight the Nazis in World War II like his brother. Instead, he became an alcoholic, a drunk really, who hates himself. He does this awful thing and immediately regrets it because it ruins Tommy’s life. Uncle Ernie is a tragic character. He recognizes that in himself, too, and is remorseful, but he chooses not to let Tommy or anyone else forgive him.

How do you want audiences to feel about Uncle Ernie?

Actors traditionally want to be loved, but I don’t care. Uncle Ernie is a real bad guy. I hope, however, that audiences see his remorse and also his humanity. He’s not a black and white character, so I think audiences should hate Uncle Ernie while also feeling badly for him.

Do you have any sense of how he is coming across?

At the stage door, I hear all kinds of things as I’m signing Playbills and posing for photos. One person told me, “You have a very difficult character to play, but you do it well,” while another said, “Nice to meet you, but I want to punch you,” to which I replied, “Thanks, I guess I’m doing a good job.”

Speaking of reactions to your work, have you heard anything from Pete Townshend?

Pete Townshend is a rock star – one of the biggest ever – and he’s also a thoughtful, deeply intelligent, awesome guy. When we performed at the Broadway Across America conference in Miami, he joined us onstage. It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when that riff begins and you realize you're on a stage doing this song with Pete Townshend. It was a surreal, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” experience.

And when we went on stage for notes following our final dress rehearsal, he walked out and hugged me and asked, “How are you, John?” That Pete Townshend knows my name is almost unbelievable to me. I didn’t even know what to say. He was here for our first two previews and he’s said so many nice things about us. And I’m getting to open this big Broadway show and it's all coming together, and I can’t believe how lucky I am.

Photo caption: John Ambrosino in a scene from the current Broadway revival of “The Who’s Tommy.” Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman. Head shot of John Ambrosino courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown.


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