I love The Who’s Tommy, having worn out the original Broadway cast cassette tape in junior high, and later upgrading to the CD. The show presents a challenge for any director and actor: Little to no character development is offered in the sung-through score, aside from Tommy. (And Tommy doesn’t really come into his own until late in act one with “Sensation.”) The actor and director must fill in the missing areas to help humanize the story — a deeply disturbing tale of childhood trauma and abuse which suddenly transitions into a send-up on celebrity worship. For the most part, Circle Theatre‘s production meets these challenges, aside from a few annoying missteps.
My favorite segments in Tommy have always been the Acid Queen and Sally Simpson.
Here, the Acid Queen number just did not work for me on a number of levels. First, this Acid Queen doesn’t have the pipes. Not saying she needs to be Tina Turner or Cheryl Freeman, but it’s a song that begs for wailing — not American Idol riffing. Also, the costume designer took the “gyspy” part of her name a bit too literally. Isn’t she supposed to be a junkie acid whore? And finally: Kevin Bellie’s choreography for this number, using randomly recycled Bob Fosse moves, is simply embarrassing. A horrible misstep. (However, Bellie’s work, aside from this number, is exuberant and appropriate.)
That said, The Sally Simpson segment — a cautionary tale for celebrity worship that causes Tommy to give it all up — is spot on, as is the final moment of the show, “Listening to You.” (Gorgeous arrangements by Steve Margoshes really let this vocally strong ensemble shine.) In fact, it was such a strong finish, I almost forgot about The Acid Queen number. Almost.
Circle Theatre’s space isn’t the best. In direct contention with the theatre’s name, the seats are crammed together, auditorium style, causing you to peer over the head in front of you to see the low-vaulted stage. Terrible sound issues, too — especially in act one. The cast is obviously miked, but nothing seemed to help those who needed boosting over the band. (I did notice a few ensemble actors who were unmiked, and I could hear them clearly. Technique!)
Speaking of the band, they’ve got a lot of live up to in representing The Who. Led by Carolyn Brady Riley, in some moments they are fantastic — “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation,” most notably. However, in the incidental music scenes, there were significant syncing issues. I sat next to a die-hard The Who fan (he talked my ear off before the show about seeing The Who for the first time when he was 15 at the United Center), and at intermission, he seemed disappointed by the musicianship. Yes, it’s not The Who, but he thought they could’ve been a little tighter, especially considering they’ve played the show a few times by now. I could only agree.
The leading cast is very good. As Mrs. Walker, Michelle Pickett found her footing in the second half, especially in “Smash the Mirror.” Captain Walter, played by Eric Lindahl, has a good voice, doing well with a role that isn’t the showiest. Jon Landvick is an appropriately lecherous Uncle Ernie, with a rock tenor that made me want to hear him sing Acid Queen.
As Tommy, Tom McGunn is ideal for this production. The second act features Tommy in full celebrity mania mode, with the costume designer fitting him in Adam Lambert-style emo-punk-glam garb, complete with glittery lipstick, metallic jacket and spiked hair. Here’s a Tommy for the 21st century, and McGunn embodied that vision.
However, the true star of this show is the ensemble. Always moving, singing, dancing, changing costumes, moving sets, playing various characters — the ensemble really carries the show. This young group of actors executes their demanding duties wonderfully. Bravo.
I must also give kudos to set designer Bob Knuth’s work. Circle Theatre’s stage is narrow and deep, and Knuth found interesting ways to create dimension and disorientation. His use of rear projections, visually highlighting moments in Tommy’s head, are well executed. And director Jeffrey Cass should look into a career as an air traffic controller, as he smoothly navigates a constantly moving cast on the tiny stage without any congestion or collisions. I didn’t agree, however, with Cass using a pre-recorded track for young Tommy’s duet with his 1960 counterpart during the “See Me, Feel Me” segments. Another misstep.
Circle Theatre’s The Who’s Tommy plays until July 19.