BWW Reviews: THE WHO'S TOMMY Takes the Stage at Prince William Little Theatre

The iconic rock opera THE WHO'S TOMMY is back onstage and Prince William Little Theatre has got it. A challenging show for even a professional company, this community theatre tackles Pete Townshend's landmark piece with gusto and innovative staging by director Melissa Jo York-Tilley and co-choreographers Melanie Marie Gibson and Ahmad Maaty. Boasting some strong performances of the classic rock score, the production gets an "E" for effort.

As fans of the show are aware, TOMMY recounts the "amazing journey" of a little boy for whom childhood trauma causes a catatonic state for most of his young life. Unable to hear, see or speak, Tommy experiences family dysfunction, physical abuse, and even a rapid rise to fame before his walking coma is broken. In the 21st century, theatregoers take for granted musical theatre that uses wall-to-wall music and singing to tell a story. The phenomenal success of LES MISERABLES, and the shows of Andrew Lloyd-Webber all owe a debt of gratitude to TOMMY.

Rock music and theatre fans of a certain age may remember when one group from the British invasion raised the bar and melded the sung-through art form of opera with edgy rock music and killer guitar riffs in the late 1960s. I am referring, of course, to The Who and their landmark album "Tommy." Rocking the world with Pete Townshend's distinctive score (with contributions from other band mates John Entwhistle and Keith Moon), "Tommy" became a touchstone for a generation. The Who performed it many times in concert and they were involved with the trippy Ken Russell film starring The Who's front man Roger Daltrey.

Broadway would not come calling until the 1990s when director Des McAnuff and choreographer Wayne Cilento worked with Townshend to flesh out the rock opera as a full-blown musical, now known officially as THE WHO'S TOMMY. A new generation embraced the "deaf, dumb, and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball."

Which brings us to the production now packing in audiences at the lovely Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. Director Melissa Jo York-Tilley uses the McAnuff template and brings her own unique touch to adapt the staging to Gregory Family Theater in the Hylton. York-Tilley employs fluid staging to keep the show moving seamlessly from scene to scene. Design collaborators Nicholas Mastrangelo (sets) and Kevin Smith (lights) employ simple platforms, suggested sets and eye-catching projections to aid in the storytelling. And special mention must be reserved to Kurt Gustafson's creative video effects, and Tommy's pinball machine designed by Kathryne Mastrangelo.

Melissa Marie Gibson and Amhad Maaty put the sizable ensemble through their paces with choreography that works stylistically and to propel the action throughout Townshend's famous score. Maaty handles double duty skillfully as a member of the ensemble, proving himself a triple threat.

Bringing to life the vivid characters from the rock opera, front and center is Eric Verchot-Ware as the older Tommy. Joining him as "child Tommy" and "young Tommy" are brothers Soren (age 8) and Kieran (11) Romano. The younger Tommy's display amazing concentration skill, since they need to appear unresponsive to the wacked out world around them. When Soren and Kieran join Eric in song, their voices all blend beautifully. As the narrator and grown-up Tommy, Verchot-Ware handles the demands of the score with a strong tenor voice, especially during songs like "Amazing Journey" and "I'm Free."

As Tommy's parents, Mrs. and Captain Walker, Danica Shook and Kurt Gustafson bring gravity and trained voices to their roles. Matt Baughman finds the ultra-creepy core for lecherous Uncle Ernie, and Aaron Verchot-Ware makes a believable bully out of Tommy's cousin Kevin.

Other musical highlights include "See Me, Feel Me" and "Cousin Kevin" which lead to the exciting "Sensation" lead by Eric as Tommy. Aaron Verchot-Ware takes the lead in "Pinball Wizard" which closes the first act with a bang.

With more nearly 30 in the cast, York-Tilley never lets the ensemble get lost in the transitions and uses them effectively as soldiers, medical staff members, street punks and fans of the famous pinball wizard Tommy.

Seeing the featured players and the large chorus enthusiastically taking on the challenges of THE WHO'S TOMMY reminded me of my own days enjoying the fun and excitement of community theatre. Students, homemakers, IT people, realtors - people from all walks of life coming together to share their adoration of live theatre not as audience members but as the performers, crew members and all the other areas that make a show live and breathe. I applaud Melissa Jo York-Tilley and her entire company for keeping the grand tradition of "little theatre" alive with big hearts, and loads of dedication. Now that's an amazing journey.

~ follow me on Twitter @jeffwalker66


THE WHO'S TOMMY

With music and lyrics by Pete Townshend

Directed and Produced by Melissa Jo York-Tilley. Music directed by Matthew Scarborough and James Maxted. Choreographed by Melanie Marie Gibson and Ahmad Maaty

Presented by Prince William Little Theatre and Performed in the in the Gregory Family Theater at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, located on the George Mason University campus at 10960 George Mason Circle in Manassas, VA

JULY 10 - 26, 2015: Show-times vary.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. For additional ticket information, please visit www.PWLT.org

Running time: 2 hours, with one intermission

PHOTOS: Ensemble with Tommy: (L-R) Tommy Richman, Ryan Roberge, Michael Clendenin, Eric Verchot-Ware and Andrew Morin. Reflection: Tommy (Eric Verchot-Ware) and young Tommy (Kieran Romano) Hospital Scene: Nurse (Caty Nicholson), child Tommy (Soren Romano) and Doctor (Michael Clendenin)

Photo Credit: DAVID HARBACK/PWLT



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From This Author Jeffrey Walker