OC Register on L.A. Tommy

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 23 05:55:17 CDT 2008


'Tommy' sounds good but looks bad
Review: A new staging of The Who's famous rock opera emphasizes sound over
visuals, with mixed results.
The Orange County Register 
Back in the day – don't ask me to tell you how far back – headphones were one
of the de rigueur badges of adolescent alienation. You wore them to shut out
the world as you listened to yourmusic. Those anthems to teen living in all its
messy glory seemed to imprint themselves directly on your cerebellum when you
were ensconced in the comforting cocoon of your Boses or Sennheisers. As a part
of a communally shared experience, though, headphones are a bit disconcerting.
They're a required element of an odd new production of
"The Who's Tommy" at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre. A pair of Bose
headphones is perched on your seatback when you enter the venue, and sound
designer James Johnson hovers over the mixing board at the back of the hall,
tweaking dials and checking balances to give you his preferred mix of music and
dramatic sound effects, which he recorded himself.
The result is a strange experience that has its rewarding
moments but seems oddly disconnected from reality. And it's not helped by a
threadbare and under-rehearsed production, which gives you precious little to
look at while you're listening and makes you wonder if the show's entire budget
has been lavished on what you hear, not what you see.
This "Tommy," which is based on Des McAnuff's
clever, Tony-winning 1993 stage adaptation of The Who's unwieldy rock opera, is
full of curious contrasts in quality. The cast includes some top-drawer musical
theater talent: Tony nominee Alice Ripley is Tommy's mother, Mrs. Walker; Jenna
Leigh Green, who played Nessarose in "Wicked" at the Pantages
Theatre, is Tommy groupie Sally Simpson; '70s rock-funk singer Nona Hendryx plays
a memorably kinky Acid Queen, dressed in chain mail that must
have been ordered from an S&M catalogue.
Yet Brodie Alan Steele's sets look wobbly and meagerly
funded. Tommy's mirror, the story's most crucial set element, acts like a moody
teen when it's in motion; I half expected it to zoom out of the building in embarrassment.
The flying effects, by Icarus Rigging, are awkward, and the actors look
insecure in their harnesses. And Brian Michael Purcell's direction suffers from
fuzziness in the details. Many scenes are static. Performers often stand around
with little to do but concoct reactions for minutes on end.
Some actors meet these challenging conditions better than
others. Ripley is a performer of considerable emotional range, and with her classic
good looks and powerful voice she can be magnetic in the right part (she's also
a "Tommy" veteran – she was in the original Broadway production). But
Ripley doesn't always make her character's direction apparent. She eschews the
Ann-Margret approach of voracious sexpot, yet there are fundamental conflicts
in the role – Tommy's mom is both a caring parent and responsible for his deaf,
dumb and blind condition – and Ripley fails to meld them into a satisfying
Hank Adams has more success
as Tommy's perverted Uncle Ernie. He brings a haunting inner turmoil to a
character too often treated as a clownish caricature. Adams'
self-hating Ernie is reminiscent of the tortured Uncle Peck in Paula Vogel's
"How I Learned to Drive." 
There are a few other high points in this very bumpy ride:
Hendryx's menacing Acid Queen, Green's needy Sally, the powerhouse voice of
Clifton Oliver (sadly, he's relegated to minor roles). As the title character,
Aleks Pevec certainly owns the Daltrey-esque hair, and he has an impressive rock
voice, but his interpretation tends toward the generic.
Johnson's aural artistry is the main reason to see and hear
this "Tommy," and you'll have to be pretty impressed with it (and
very forgiving of the show's many other shortcomings) to enjoy yourself. Johnson,
a talented industry veteran, performs some amazing wizardry with the sound
coming through your headphones. When paratroopers leap from their plane, you
hear the "whomp" of the chute deploying. Legendary guitarist Ronny
Drayton, who leaves the band to make a stage appearance, is cranked way up in
the mix – sometimes too much – but the blend of musicians, singers and effects
can be magisterial.
Which leads to an obvious question: Why not perform this
sound-dominated "Tommy" as an oratorio? You'd save the trouble of
building an elaborate set on the cheap, relieve actors of the burden of
climbing around on it and keeping in character when they're not singing, and
focus everyone's attention on the best element of the show. Hey, it worked for
 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!


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