Washington Post: Pinball Without Bells & Whistles

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Tue Jul 20 05:40:56 CDT 2004

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Studio's 'Tommy': Pinball Without Bells & Whistles 

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page C01 

"Tommy," the Who's classic rock opera, is 35 years
old, and from the look of things onstage at Studio
Theatre, it's ready for early retirement. The
atmosphere of Keith Alan Baker's constipated
production for Studio's Secondstage company is so
stately you get the feeling the cast has come to lay
Pete Townshend's music to rest, not to celebrate it. 

Baker's stripped-down revival is a galaxy or two
removed from the assault-on-the-senses, light-show
version that pulsated on Broadway a decade ago. This
spare approach is a momentarily arresting choice, but
ultimately no sale. You can see now why all the smoke
and mirrors and bells and whistles were manufactured
for Broadway. Though Townshend's hummable score, born
in 1969 in rock album form, remains a powerful
element, the story is not exactly a heart-stopper. 

The familiar words and melodies -- "It's a boy, Mrs.
Walker, it's a boy"; "Fi-i-i-i-iddle about! Fiddle
about!" -- waft through the theater pleasantly, thanks
to the cast of engaging young vocalists Baker has
assembled. Still, they have a devil of a time trying
to shake "Tommy" awake. The staging is only slightly
more lively than what you find in a concert version.
Jeanne Feeney's idea of choreography is to have the
singers stand on raised platforms and sway at
half-tempo. And costume designer Franklin Labovitz
decided to dress the members of the chorus as if
they'd all been given gift certificates for Banana
Republic; what the fashion statement engenders is the
sterility of a window display at the mall. 

Shouldn't a rock opera, well, rock? Occasionally this
"Tommy" does emerge from its coma. The audience owes a
huge debt to one performer, Jeffrey L. Peterson, who
plugs into Townshend's current. Peterson portrays the
fiendish Cousin Kevin and, mercifully, pays a return
visit, in spiky hair, to deliver "Pinball Wizard." The
energy he brings to his assignments is a godsend. The
five-piece band, conducted by Daniel Sticco, is the
right size for the hall, and when it is accompanying
Peterson, the evening is suddenly a party. 

No doubt Baker and the ensemble had their work cut out
for them. The thinly plotted, humorless "Tommy" moves
episodically through the kind of story that could
captivate a 14-year-old holed up in his bedroom with
headphones on, but that seems more than a little trite
on a stage. After seeing his war hero father kill his
mother's lover in front of him, Tommy (Yuval
Samburski) is struck deaf, mute and blind. Tommy grows
up the town weirdo -- Baker puts him much of the time
in a Lucite cage -- and he's treated badly by
everyone: tortured by Cousin Kevin, abused by Uncle
Ernie (Christopher Gallu), misunderstood by his
parents (Maddy Wyatt and Larry Baldine) and desperate
for someone to, aw, you know, feel him, touch him,
heal him. 

The rock-musical requirement of a messianic element is
fulfilled when Tommy becomes a pinball champ and, in
the style of the virtually contemporaneous "Godspell"
and "Jesus Christ Superstar," attracts an adoring
following. All the fuss about Samburski's Tommy,
however, is much ado about precious little. Samburski
has a pretty voice and, sad to say, that's all there
is to the performance. Though the actor projects an
exotic, Prince-like serenity, an audience never warms
to him. He wears the same glazed expression when Tommy
goes blind as he does after Tommy regains his sight.
Poor Tommy's one note has been played out by the
second or third scene. 

A pervasive stiffness ails this ensemble. Why does
everyone seem so afraid of letting go? Is it
early-in-the-run nerves or a misplaced reverence for
the material? Wyatt and Baldine's duets are faultless,
but the performances suffer from a dearth of color.
Others in the cast range from adequate to downright

Colin K. Bills's lighting design, whose chief feature
is a panel of bulbs that spell out the hero's name,
offers a bare minimum of pizazz. It's a relief that
the generic abstract set by Giorgos Tsappas does not
include a roof. This production could not possibly
have raised it. 

The Who's Tommy, music and lyrics by Pete Townshend,
with additional lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith
Moon; book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Directed
by Keith Alan Baker. Music direction, Daniel Sticco;
set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Colin K. Bills;
costumes, Franklin Labovitz; sound, Bridget O'Connor;
choreography, Jeanne Feeney. With Justin Benoit, Nazia
Chaudhry, Sara Jo Elice, John Guzman, Roseanne Medina,
Philip Olarte, Maya Lynne Robinson. Approximately 90
minutes. Through Aug. 8 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P
streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!

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