Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Who's Tommy

presented by DOMA Theatre Company at The MET Theatre

There's no getting around it:  The Who's Tommy is dated.  A musical about a pinball whiz who becomes a new age cult leader -- no doubt past its "best by" date when it premiered onstage in the age of Super Nintendo, it seems none the fresher in the age of Angry Birds.  But that music!  Such an improbable story, set four decades before the actor playing Young Tommy was born -- Despite it all, The Who's Tommy remains forever young, vitalized by the music.  The music is clearly DOMA's first concern, and by and large, the onstage talent rocks the house.  It is unfortunate that the direction and design work does not keep the tempo.

A piece like The Who's Tommy requires a strong vision; something for the designers and actors to build toward.  This vision was either missing altogether or simply lacking in potency.  Director Hallie Baran delivers up rare moments where things seems to click -- the overture, the hospital montage -- but these are rare moments indeed.  Act Two feels like a race to the end.  The clever staging ideas that pepper Act One are largely absent in Act Two, replaced by scenes of standing around and singing.   It should be enough to just let the cast belt out Pete Townshend's explosive music.  It should be, but it's not.  We may come to the show for the music, but it's the story, the characters that grab us.

The lack of vision is most sorely felt in Brandy Jacob's production design.  The stage is hemmed in by an arbitrarily assembled assortment of levels that are never adequately used.  There's no consistency of palette, texture, anything that might unify the set.  The costumes are a confusing pastiche of 70 years worth of costumes -- 1940s fashions rub shoulders with Daft Punk t-shirts, 1970s leather, and day-glo 80s wear.  Tommy's off-the-rack Tron hoodie is the most egregious costuming fault.  Picked, no doubt, because it "looks cool," it reveals nothing about the character.  But that's precisely what design work is supposed to do:  Reflect and amplify the world of the play.  In a musical as malleable as Tommy, the potential for imaginative design is extraordinary.  The creative team settled on ordinary.

I trust that the lights will be fixed.  I have to believe that lighting designer Cullen Pinney saw the same show I saw, and made a mental note to fix every dark spot and clean-up every wayward follow spot.  Likewise, I hope he reminds the cast to find their light.  There are some fantastic ideas happening in the lighting, and I'll give Pinney a pass on opening night technical issues.  I don't want to say much more about the lights, other than the transformation effect -- when Young Tommy became deaf, mute, and blind -- did not work.  The specialty gobo was too washed out.  That's any easy fix, as are all the lighting issues.  I trust they will be fixed.

The sound issues are few and fleeting -- only a couple of times did I feel the band overpowered the vocals.  I appreciate that everyone was mic'ed (or seemed to be.)

Although Jess Ford (Tommy) is an appealing performer with a strong voice and tremendous energy and presence, he doesn't quite connect with Tommy.  He has the external right -- he strikes all the right poses.  But the internal world of Tommy just rings hollow.  And Tommy is all internal world.  And so it is that Tommy's reemergence into the land of the seeing, hearing, and speaking doesn't earn its emotional pay-off. His epiphany at the end of the show doesn't land.  It is well within Ford's abilities to nail this role.  He hasn't found Tommy yet, but he's close.

The music, under the direction of Chris Raymond, is where this production of The Who's Tommy really begins to hit its stride.  The band sounds great, and the the ensemble is wonderful.  Chris Kerrigan in particular lit up the stage every time he took it.  His Pinball Wizard was a frustrated nerd, and an utter delight to take in.  Donovan Baise (Young Tommy, the night I attended) is an adorable young man with considerable stage presence.  Really, I find very little fault with the cast and the band.  I only wish they had received the support they so dearly deserve.

The Who's Tommy can be seen, heard, and felt on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through April 15th.  The MET Theatre is located at 1089 Oxford Avenue in Hollywood, just off Santa Monica near Western. 

General Admission is $30; VIP seating is $35.  Seniors and students with ID pay only $20.  There is secure parking available for $5, but get there a little early. Also, calling it "stacked parking" is a little generous:  Cars are sardined into the Earl Scheib parking lot around the corner.  It's okay -- just know before you go.

And if you go, be sure to avail yourself of the pinball machine in the lobby.

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