BWW Interviews: Short North Stage Ready to Deliver THE WHO'S TOMMY

The team that runs Short North Stage isn't one for playing it safe. After taking on the diverse but demanding musicals like SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE last October and HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH last summer, the theater group will be performing THE WHO'S TOMMY April 10-27 at the Garden Theater.

"We like to take shows that are challenging," executive producer Rick Gore says. "Audiences will be surprised by some of the stage craft and the inventiveness we've used. We'd like to show our audience a strong dance musical can be done with a local cast here in Columbus."

When it last came through Columbus, the national touring company needed 13 trucks to haul all the equipment to present TOMMY. The Short North Stage probably won't have all the bells and whistles that tour but will have an array of special effects including a human pinball dance sequence and large projection screens to bring to life the musical.

Written by Pete Townshend in 1969, TOMMY, the story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who becomes the pinball champion of the world, started life as a double album by The Who. In 1975, director Ken Russell turned the album into a film starring an eclectic cast including actors Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson and rock stars Elton John, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton.

The film version was bizarre. In one scene, it had Ann-Margret bathing in a tub of baked beans (in a wink to the 1967 album The Who Sell Out). But it also earned critical acclaim. Ann-Margret was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST) and Townshend received a nomination for an Oscar for scoring and adapting the music for the film.

In 1993, Townshend and Des McAnuff turned the album into a musical. The show ran from 1993-95 on Broadway and, like the movie, earned critical success. In 1992, it won six Tony Awards including Best Original Score for Townshend and Outstanding Director of a Musical for McAnuff.

Gore says even those who disliked the movie should give the musical a chance.

"I didn't like the movie," Gore says. "The story is much clearer and much more appealing in the Broadway show."

One of the biggest differences is in the opening of TOMMY. In the movie version, Captain Walker is presumed dead during World War II and his wife has taken a new lover. After being freed from a prison camp, Walker returns and finds his wife in bed with her lover and the lover kills Walker. After witnessing the murder, the Walkers beseech Tommy "You didn't hear it. You didn't see it. You won't say nothing to no one." To keep their love, Tommy goes into a senseless psychological state.

In the musical, however, it is Walker who shoots the lover. Gore believes the switch makes Tommy's parents easier to relate to.

"That (guilt) is a very vivid part of this show," Gore says. "Walker is haunted with by the fact he not only killed his wife's lover but in a sense, he may have killed (any chance his son had at a normal life).

"Any play has to have heart. In most of the plays we have chosen, you connect with characters and experience their pain. We really want people to connect with the emotional journey of Tommy and his parents."

Followers of the Short North Stage will be very familiar with some of the main players of TOMMY. The show reunites director/choreographer Edward Carignan, who directed HEDWIG, with HEDWIG star J.J. Parkey, who plays Tommy. TOMMY will also feature the same six-piece house band as HEDWIG.

Also playing Tommy at different stages of his life are Griffin Giannone (at age 10) and his brother Christian (at age four).

"That's another challenge for the show," Gore says. "It spans three distinct generations (1950s, 60s and 70s). That means three different set of costumes. We have over 80 costumes for this show."

Rounding out the cast are David Bryant Johnson (Captain Walker), Emily Brockway (Mrs. Walker), Josh Houghton (Cousin Kevin), Ryan Stem (Uncle Ernie), Stephanie Jenkins (Sally Simpson) and Kendra Lynn Lucas (Acid Queen/Talk Show Host).

One of the biggest surprises of tryouts was the casting of Tommy Batchelor. The Ohio State freshman made his Broadway debut at 13 first as the understudy and then playing the title role in BILLY ELLIOTT.

"At auditions, we looked at his resume and went 'Oh my. That's quite a past he has,'" Gore says. "He's a dynamic young kid and a great dancer and adds a lot to the show."

Riley Able, Jason Carl Crase (Lover), Kaitlin Descutner (Mrs. Walker understudy), Jeff Fouch, Cody Michael Shope and Karlie Sites (Minister's wife/nurse) round out the ensemble cast.

Gore believes the Short North Stage has all the ingredients for a very special show.

"We hope the audiences get out of it a terrific theatrical experience and they feel moved (by the time it reaches curtain call)," Gore says. "We hope those who remember the album will feel a great sense of nostalgia and joy. Those who are not familiar with TOMMY will learn about it in a new light."

TOMMY will be performed at the Garden Theatre (1187 North High Street in the Short North). Show times are 8 p.m. April 10-12, April 17-19 and 24-26 and 3 p.m. April 13, 20, and 27. For more information, contact the Short North Stage at 614-725-4042.

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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