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‘Tommy’: still an amazing journey in musical theater form

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May 24, 2011 | Leave Comment

Tommy's cruel Cousin Kevin (actor Jimmy Beall) flashes a devil-may-care-smile, surrounded by female admirers, in the UC Davis production of "The Who's Tommy." When nobody else is looking, Cousin Kevin takes advantage of Tommy's muteness by physically mistreating him, just for kicks. Courtesy photo

Check it out

What: “The Who’s Tommy”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Main Theatre, UC Davis Wright Hall

Tickets: $18/$22 general, $15/$20 students, children, seniors; (530) 754-2787 or http://www.mondaviarts.org

I’ve had the LP version of The Who’s seminal 1969 concept album “Tommy” floating around my house for a tad over 40 years. So I approached the UC Davis theater and dance department’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” with, shall we say, a few pre-conceived notions. As do, I expect, a goodly number of other Enterprise readers of a certain age.

So let’s clean up a few points at the outset. The version on stage at the university is based on the 1993 Broadway adaptation (not to be confused with the over-the-top 1975 movie version, which was directed by Ken Russell; say no more).

There are a few minor differences in terms of music and plot that separate the original album from the movie and the Broadway adaptation. Mindy Cooper, who was very much involved with the Broadway version, is the director and choreographer of the current UCD production — and Cooper clearly grasps what’s important about “Tommy,” and brings those aspects into focus on the stage.

This is a big, impressive, elaborately staged show, with a large cast moving through some intricate dance routines, sporting a whole lot of costumes, surrounded by pieces of scenery that fly down on wires.

There’s a pinball machine that moves around on wheels. And with today’s undergrads having grown up on video games, you almost expect to see a explanatory note in the playbill, giving today’s flat-screen nerds an idea of the appeal of pinball — with a physical ball, bouncing off actual bumpers — to teenagers back in the day.

There’s also a turning circular platform at center stage (with the back part of the rotating platform hidden) that brings out various cast members in different scenes — a nice visual flourish. The flat platform’s rotation also tweaks memories of 33 1/3 LPs from bygone decades. Credit scenic designer Kourtney Lampedecchio, a master of fine arts candidate, for good work in this regard.

There’s also extensive use of a two-way mirror. As those familiar with this story are aware, the mentally traumatized Tommy — who was rendered behaviorally deaf, dumb and blind by a shocking childhood experience — somehow reacts to his image in the mirror, even though he won’t speak or interact with others around him. He is finally jolted out of his inert behavior when the mirror is smashed.

The show opens with a vividly staged World War II montage: the whirlwind courtship between the lovers who will become Tommy’s parents, the German bombs falling on Britain, Tommy’s father Captain Walker parachuting into battle on the continent (where he is taken as a prisoner of war, and is presumed dead back home), leaving his new wife (pregnant with Tommy) struggling to find a foothold in life.

This fast-moving and eye-catching sequence, which also includes video projections and sound effects, is deftly rendered by Cooper and her cast, with strong support from the show’s five-piece band, visible onstage throughout the show.

The band — a truly critical element in a rock opera like this show — is led by keyboard player Graham Sobelman, who’s become a notable presence on Sacramento’s musical theater scene during the past few years.

The tight, energetic ensemble includes bass (Verna Brock), drums (Dan Eisenberg), and guitar (Kenny Manlapig), with a brassy kick from French horn player Kelly Suthers, a classically trained musician who comes out of the highly regarded Eastman School of Music in Upstate New York.

The production also features three Tommys. There’s 7-year-old Ryley Steggall (actually a girl) playing the 4-year-old Tommy; there’s sixth-grader Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky, who may be young and short of stature, but gives a very big performance, powered by his glassy gaze and his unchanging yet somehow sad facial expression; and there’s Matthew Dunnivan, a fourth-year student in dramatic art, as the teenage/young adult Tommy, who basically becomes a rock star with a rags-to-riches back story after he snaps out of his deaf/dumb/blind trance.

As a musical, this one’s sung through — there’s hardly any spoken dialog, and the music flows from one song straight into the next. The supporting roles are numerous — Alison Sundstrom as Tommy’s long-suffering mom;Christopher McCoy as her husband Captain Walker; Michael Davison as the outwardly charming, privately predatory Uncle Ernie; Jimmy Beall as the dangerous and abusive Cousin Kevin are among the characters who linger over time.

There are also cameos: Malia Abayon as the sexy/tawdry Acid Queen, to whom Tommy’s parents desperately turn, seeking a “cure”; Elizabeth Tremain as the starstruck teen Sally Simpson, whose desire to meet her idol Tommy leads to disappointment; as well as a large ensemble — too many names to list — whose crowd scenes give Cooper the opportunity to stage large, complex interactions that are a treat to observe.

The show’s primary weakness — and it’s not a fatal flaw — is the singing. The students in the cast have built up some acting chops, certain cast members more than others. But as vocalists, they are a pretty mixed bag, particularly when they step into solo parts.

The microphones worn by cast members don’t always function as smoothly as you’d like, but that’s also an occasional problem with Sacramento Music Circus shows as well.

Aside from this shortcoming, this is a university production that successfully rivals a summer professional production in terms of the directing, the band, the set and costumes, and a few other elements.

The two hours whiz by, and the music — vintage psychedelic-era British rock, hopeful and visionary in a manner that is still appealing, and yet simultaneously frank when dealing with child abuse and other dark topics — holds up remarkably well for pop music that is four decades old.

Like all campus shows, “The Who’s Tommy” has a short run. There are four performances left; don’t miss them.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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