REVIEW: "The Who's TOMMY" – Costa Mesa Playhouse
Updated: Jul 23, 2019
"Very clever Mr Townshend. Very clever indeed..."
A 1993 smash-hit on both sides of the Atlantic, this powerful tale of a deaf, mute and blind pinball player who becomes an international messiah now bursts on the stage at Costa Mesa Playhouse in an award-winning adaptation of the original chart-topping rock album.
“The Who’s Tommy,” Pete Townshend’s tale of a young boy’s journey from pain to triumph is the most electrifying evening of rock and roll ever to play in a theatre!
Translated to the stage by Des McAnuff into a high-energy, one-of-a-kind theatrical event, the exhilarating score is timeless in its cross-generational appeal, remaining surprisingly relevant in 2019. The re-tooled rock concert musical is a five-time Tony winner with music and lyrics based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera, “Tommy,” which was penned by Townshend over fifty years ago. “Tommy” was the album that launched The Who into mega-stardom and established the format of the double album "rock opera."
For those unaware, a concert musical is generally a performance with limited staging, sets and costumes. The orchestra or band is usually together on the stage with the principal singers in front of the orchestra. The eight piece band for The Who’s Tommy at Costa Mesa Playhouse was just such a performance, (“somewhere between The Who’s concert and the Broadway musical,” – Artistic Director Michael Serna) with the instruments and equipment occupying the lion’s share of the stage. The cast was pushed upstage in limited space in front of five microphones, but seemed adequate enough when it came down to the acting, which is mostly performed within the songs.
And, on opening night last Friday, boasting a packed house at Costa Mesa Playhouse, hits like “Amazing Journey,” “The Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free” sounded like they haven’t aged a day as they propelled a story meant to invoke healing and redemption. With book by Townshend and McAnuff, additional music and lyrics come from band-members, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Michael Serna directs this short, two-weekend, scorching production which runs through July 28th, with anticipated sell-outs each performance.
Some of the best musicians from around southern California performs in “The Who’s Tommy” as a special attraction to help kick off their 55th season at the Playhouse. The band is Musically Directed by the accomplished Stephen Hulsey, who’s also on keyboard 1. Stella Monshaw and Cheryl Gual are on keyboards 2 and 3, Anthony Caulkins and Alec De Kervor play acoustic and electric guitar, with Mark Davidson on Bass.
The French Horn (the only horn on both the album and stage production) is performed skillfully by Adrian Dunker. And Sho Fujieda steps into the drumset of the famous Keith Moon, with flawless results. If you’re old enough to remember, Moon and Townshend were known for destroying their guitars and drumsets on stage after every event.
As for the actors, the pulse-rushing melodic energy of Pete Townshend’s score is thrillingly harnessed by a cast led by Parker Wright ("There's a Doctor," "Go to the Mirror!") and Samantha Blair (“Do You Think it’s Alright?” “Smash the Mirror”) as Captain and Mrs. Walker, Tommy’s parents. And, as the traumatized Tommy (totally winning in the title role, especially in his grown-up guise as a touring sensation), is the terrific Mark Torres, dressed in leather jacket, T-shirt, jeans and bright vermilion shoes.
Cam Burchard plays the bullying Cousin Kevin with all the magnetic menace of a natural-born demon, and Gavin Burrell is creepily perverted as Uncle Ernie. Deanna Anthony, the diva-like Gypsy (who also plays Mrs. Simpson) sings “Eyesight to the Blind” and “Acid Queen” with a sexy shimmy and a set of pipes that recalls the electric talent of Tina Turner.
More than simply the tale of “a deaf, dumb and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball,” the show is captivatingly hypnotic and chock-full of utterly brilliant numbers. In 1992, however, Townshend made a number of lyrical changes between the film version and the stage musical for their premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. These include revisions to "It's a Boy," "Amazing Journey," and "Tommy's Holiday Camp" (which features a carnies-gone-mad turn on the album by Keith Moon). He also introduced a new piece called, "I Believe My Own Eyes," in which the Walkers resign themselves to accepting Tommy's fate after years of trying.
Told in a series of short vignettes, the musical covers the twenty year span from Tommy’s birth in 1942 to his eventual rise to fame in the early 1960s. As the story goes…During World War II, Captain Walker becomes a prisoner of war by the Nazis ("Overture"), and presumed dead. The following year, two nurses gently hand Mrs. Walker her newborn son, Tommy (“It’s a Boy,” featuring Townshend’s inspired acoustic guitar score).
Later, in 1945, American troops liberate Captain Walker's POW camp, and he returns home during her birthday celebration (“Twenty-One”). A fight erupts between Captain Walker and the boyfriend, and Tommy watches his father shoot the boyfriend to death through a large mirror. Traumatized in a catatonic state, Tommy blocks out everything and becomes as if deaf, mute and blind (“Amazing Journey”).
Tommy's parents have him undergo a battery of medical tests to no avail ("Sparks," an instrumental), and even at ten years of age, Tommy does not know that it’s Christmas or understand its significance ("Christmas," – the Company).
The Walkers leave Tommy (Mr. Torres – “See Me, Feel Me”) with a couple of sleazy, vicious babysitters, his alcoholic and sexually abusive Uncle Ernie (Mr. Burrell - "Fiddle About"), as well as his sadistic cousin Kevin (Mr. Burchard – “Cousin Kevin”). Both of them are two of the strongest voices of the night. John Entwistle wrote “Fiddle About” at Pete Townshend's request, by the way, basing the melody around the piano song, "Chopsticks," while “Cousin Kevin” is based on an actual real-life neighborhood bully. Both songs dealt with personal traumatic experiences that would be too difficult for Townshend to write about, so Entwistle rose to the task.
As an adolescent, Tommy is discovered to have an uncanny knack for playing pinball, and when his mother finally breaks through his insensibility, he becomes an international pinball superstar and guru.
Donning sunglasses to represent blindness, Sophia Barajas and Ally Teeples play the toddler and preadolescent stage of Tommy. Ms. Teeples also depicts a Street Hustler. Both also play the nurses, and are key backup vocals in most of the songs.
When Tommy becomes an international messiah, typical teenybopper fan, Sally Simpson (Allie Zito), falls from the stage in her eagerness to touch him and she is trounced by guards ("Sally Simpson"). Tommy, flustered and unhinged, stops the show and after realizing how caught up in celebrity status he was, he decides to quit the tour and invite all his fans to his house (“Welcome”). Sally then asks Tommy how she can be more like him and less like herself ("Sally’s Question"), and he counters that there is no reason for anyone to be like him, when everyone else already possesses the amazing gifts that he was deprived of most of his life.
The fans, now disenchanted with their hero for failing to provide the right answers, turns on him in anger and eventually leaves ("We're Not Gonna Take It"), leaving Tommy with the voice, once again, of his ten-year-old self from the mirror. Not willing to revert to his old state, he turns to his family and embraces them in acceptance, before climactically reuniting with his younger selves onstage ("Listening to You/Finale").
The songs are mostly restless, kinetic and full of energetic drumming from Mr. Fujieda, as he dances around the kit. No drippy strings, no over-singing, no superfluous amounts of overdubs, no gimmicky sound effects or other things that would ruin a similar concept. In fact, there are enough great songs here to make most any fan of classic rock theater very happy indeed. The band sounded as fresh, unique and vibrant on opening day as The Who must have sounded in 1969.
"Go to the Mirror!" features one of Townshend's most poignant melodic turns. Married to a fierce guitar crunch, it's more than enough to compliment the melodramatic themes around it. Similarly, "Christmas" is a blast, with backing voices breathless from childlike excitement. "Tommy Can You Hear Me?" chills with its cheering crescendo chorus. And "Cousin Kevin" – a dour character study reminiscent of "Silas Stingy" – has the sense to let its terror run unabated. Considering that, it's one of the best songs in the show.
"Pinball Wizard" was the breakout stand-alone hit and is obviously an insular masterpiece with its dexterous allegorical storytelling, its highway chase-ready acoustic guitars and roaring electric guitar intervals. What really carries "The Who’s Tommy," though, is the quality of the songs and the musicianship of the performance. And the amazing band on stage last Friday appeared to have no equal.
Michael Serna’s set signage features large graffiti-like florescent painted tags on all three visible walls, painted by Steve Endicott, Amanda Linhardt and Mr. Serna – No major costume décor director is listed for this show, as a basic street clothes rock attire is maintained by all, although a number of leather-style jackets and T-shirts are prominent, including very tight, shiny pants worn by the female singers. Lighting Design is by Ryan Linhardt, Sound Design is by Rick Cutler and Kaden Cutler, with Sound Mixing by Kaden Cutler. Director Serna is also the Production Designer.
From the classic 1969 album to the 1993 Broadway musical, “The Who’s Tommy” is nothing short of a cross-cultural mainstay. It’s a Tommy for the modern age – packed full of resonance. And considering that widespread appeal throughout so many circles, it’s only fitting to find the show at Costa Mesa Playhouse, presenting a hard-rocking concert stage show that definitely rivals the original.
“The Who’s Tommy” will continue this next weekend, concluding the run with four performances remaining: July 25th, 26th and 27th at 8pm, and a Sunday matinee at 2pm. For online ticket information, go to: https://costamesaplayhouse.com/ This show is highly recommended!
The Show Report
Photo credits: Kerrin Serna.