BWW Reviews: Chance Theater Rocks Out With 'TOMMY'

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The idea of dramatizing a rock group's concept album isn't exactly a new phenomenon that Green Day's American Idiot can claim to be the sole example. Back in 1992 the La Jolla Playhouse mounted a new stage musical based on The Who's 1969 double-album (and the 1975 motion picture) Tommy, a rock opera with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend. One year after its La Jolla run, the show debuted on Broadway and played for more than two years, before subsequently becoming an often-produced show by various regional theater companies.

The latest to produce a full production of THE WHO'S TOMMY is The Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills, the little store-front black box theater that, over the years, have managed to do quite a lot with its small space. In this fast-paced, tightly-directed new revival, THE WHO'S TOMMY-with sold out performances extended through August 15-hits with the ferocity of a full-on rock concert and features a confident, spirited cast. And, in somewhat of a nice surprise, the show utilizes newer technology unseen (or unaffordable) in many smaller theaters.

The story is just kind of out-there enough to work for a rock-scored musical: The year is 1940, and the world is mired in the Second World War. A couple meet, fall in love, and get married. Unfortunately, Captain Walker (Kevin Cordova) must now depart London to join the war effort, leaving behind his very pregnant wife (Wendi Ann Hammock). She is soon informed later that her husband has gone missing and is presumably dead. In reality, the Captain has been captured and imprisoned in a Prisoner of War Camp. Mrs. Walker soon gives birth to a newborn son, Tommy.

Five years pass and Mrs. Walker has now taken on a lover (Brian Bitner), unaware that the Captain has been freed and rescued. The homecoming turns tragic, as the Captain and Mrs. Walker's new lover battle in a vicious fight. Hoping to shield her son from seeing the violence, Mrs. Walker forces her young son to face the mirror. Unfortunately, the mirror gives young 4-year-old Tommy (Cameron McIntyre) a front row seat to watch the murder of his mother's lover in the hands of his biological father. The Walkers, in a bit of panicked rage, shake Tommy violently, commanding him that he did not see or hear anything. The young boy literally takes it to heart: he is now deaf, dumb and blind.

10-year-old Tommy (Seth Dusky) continues through his adolescent years completely emotionless and silent, frustrating his parents to the point of seeking various methods and advice in desperation from several medical (and not-so-up-and-up) sources. Guided by visions of his older self (exciting newcomer Mark Bartlett) yearning to break free, Tommy Remains quiet and emotionally blank to his increasingly dumbfounded parents. In the meantime, the young mute suffers through very tragic abuses from older relatives Uncle Ernie (Beach Vickers), who sexually molests him, and Cousin Kevin (Paul Hovannes) who, joined by his motley crew, bully and torture him. By the end of the first act, the now 17-year-old Tommy (now resumed by Bartlett) is discovered to have a knack for high-scoring with a pinball machine. Could this newfound "skill"help the mute boy break out of his self-imposed silence?

THE WHO'S TOMMY is a sung-through musical, in that every bit of dialogue and action is musicalized, hence its "rock opera" label. This may or may not turn off some who prefer traditional book musicals that offer breaks of spoken dialogue in between self-contained musical numbers. Some songs are more memorable than others, but its classic-rock significance certainly still holds. Only one song, the often repeated musical signpost... "See Me, Feel Me..." feels a bit grating now as the musical ages before our eyes (and ears).

While the story itself (written by Townshend and Des McAnuff) is by far this particular musical's weakest element, it is certainly enhanced a bit more here by director Oanh Nguyen's solid staging and secure vision. There's a tendency for his productions to have a creative tenacity that's lacking in other productions by smaller theaters... a trait that, in the long run, is much appreciated. It is also to his credit that the use of technical marvels be not a crutch to distract the audience from the flaws of the show, but rather help tell the story in a seemingly richer way. The professional moving lights, video projections and LED panels (provided by Disneyland Technical Services and Elation) help Tommy's world come to vivid life in such a way that has never been attempted in previous black-box productions this reviewer has seen. Aided also by a sturdy set designed by Christopher Scott Murillo, wildly dynamic choreography by Allison Bibicoff, and lighting/video design by KC Wilkerson, the whole show seems like it has been dropped inside a pinball machine, with the cast acting as busy objects that crash into immovable Tommy, shaping his journey. There is also a noticeably powerful surround sound system that harkens to being smack-dab in the middle of a thunderous rock concert (or, at the very least, a high-end THX®-equipped mini-theater).

However, the performers, more than anything else, do their valiant part to bring forth a good show. When performing together in group numbers, the ensemble is especially good, sounding and dancing as cohesive and harmonious as any touring company that has been together for a long time. Though some of the cast's affected British brogue range from slightly laughable to incomprehensible, they all still do an admirable job dramatizing the topsy-turvy events of the musical. As with all companies, there are a few standouts that elevate the production. As Mrs. Walker, Hammock is nicely cast and delivers her emotional role with a beautiful singing voice. A nice surprise is Hovannes as the sadistic cousin, who gives his role an effective raspy-rock musicality. The two child actors were also nicely controlled, letting the adults take the reigns of the show. And finally, as the title character, Bartlett excellently offers up a vulnerable and, later, triumphant portrayal of Tommy. Blessed with a nice strong voice and handsome features, it is quite surprising to learn that he is rather new in the musical theater scene.

Overall, the Chance Theater's production of THE WHO'S TOMMY offers up an interesting, entertaining mix of technical innovation, fairly vivid musical performances and commendable staging. This is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but there is no denying that all involved in Chance Theater's revival has done an admirable job of taking this otherwise satisfactory musical show to an exciting new height.

Photos by Doug Catiller for The Chance Theater.
Top: Mark Bartlett (as adult Tommy) breaks free. Center: Seth Dusky (as 10-year old Tommy)
taunted by Cousin Kevin (Paul Hovannes, hovering center) and friends.
Bottom: Wendi Ann Hammock (Mrs. Walker) & Mark Bartlett.


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Due to overwhelming ticket demand, the Chance Theater has extended the run of THE WHO'S TOMMY through August 15, 2010. The added performances are August 8 at 7 pm, August 13 at 8 pm, August 14 at 8 pm, and August 15 at 2 and 7 pm.

Remaining performance times: Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings at 8 pm (no performance on Thursday, August 12), Saturday matinees at 3 pm (no Saturday matinee on August 14), and Sundays at 2 pm & 7 pm.

Tickets are priced from $30 to $45 (Discounts for seniors, students, and military). The Chance Theater is located at 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.chancetheater.com.



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From This Author Michael L. Quintos