BWW Review: THE WHO'S TOMMY Takes Center Stage at Kennedy Center

BWW Review: THE WHO'S TOMMY Takes Center Stage at Kennedy Center
Christian Borle and Mandy Gonzalez in THE WHO'S TOMMY at Kennedy Center; photo by Jeremy Daniel

Over the past two years, the Kennedy Center's popular Broadway Center Stage series has presented musicals in a semi-staged format featuring some of Broadway's best talent. It's essentially DC's answer to Encores in New York except it features musicals that probably even the general public recognizes - at least in name.

The latest offering, Pete Townshend (Music, Lyrics, and Book) and Des McAnuff's (Book) stage adaptation of The Who's Tommy, follows with this practice. However, this production is staged slightly more elaborately than some of the others. Broadway favorites Christian Borle and Mandy Gonzalez command the stage and give the best acting and vocal performances of the night as Captain Walker and Mrs. Walker. Television and film actor Casey Cott plays the Walker's deaf, blind, and dumb son Tommy. (The adorable Declan Fennel and the tremendously talented Hudson Loverro play Tommy at age 4 and 10, respectively.)

Under the meticulous direction of Josh Rhodes, the cast belts out Pete Townshend's (Music and Lyrics) tunes with intense energy, backed by Music Director Lynne Shankel's equally committed onstage eight-piece orchestra. The music, Josh Rhodes' choreography, Paul DePoo's scenic and projection elements, and Jake DeGroot's bright lighting design also make it very easy to be drawn into the moment and overall experience, despite the deficiencies in the book (at least as presented here, it's simply uninteresting - at least to me). The ensemble, comprised mostly of performers with Broadway and regional credits, delivers exceptionally polished vocal performances especially given the short rehearsal time.

Principal actor-wise, the highest points emerge when Borle and Gonzalez are front and center as the Walker's try to figure out how to deal with their son Tommy and their unique situation following Captain Walker's release from captivity in World War II. (Tommy, of course, stopped speaking, hearing, or really engaging with the world when he witnessed Captain Walker commit a violent act upon his unexpected return home. He was told to keep what happened a secret and, for a long time, only engaged with one thing - a pinball machine.) They are a perfect vocal and acting match and achieve a certain level of believability as a married couple with issues. Ms. Gonzalez's "Smash the Mirror" demonstrates her versatility and power as a singer-actress.

Manu Narayan delivers a darkly comedic performance as Uncle Ernie. Wesley Taylor, also armed with a slew of Broadway credits, also makes an impression as Cousin Kevin due to his strong vocals and acting skills. Kimberly Nichole (The Gypsy) while not much of an actress, also commands attention on "Acid Queen."

For a show called Tommy, however, we have a bit of a problem. The younger performers portraying the titular character succeed without issue, but Casey Cott was simply not up to the task of taking on the role. At least on the night I attended, he performed with a lot of intensity - but it was the kind of intensity suited for a short music video, not a theatrical stage production at one of the nation's most prestigious venues. I didn't care about his character's plight due to his weak acting and most of the time his vocals had a pinched and nasal quality. He also struggled to stay on pitch at times. It's really a shame because this musical depends on a strong performer in that role and Casey Cott isn't that. (Now Corey Cott? Maybe.)

The audience around me was having a great time throughout though. That counts for something.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.

THE WHO'S TOMMY plays at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through April 29, 2019. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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