At the close of the Studio Theatre Secondstage’s Tommy, as the 14 actors belted out “Listening to You,” I felt the goose bumps rise on my arm as musical director Daniel Sticco brought out rich harmonic color in his singers and five-piece band, enhancing an already powerful song.
That’s the good news. The bad news: My chills were born not just of enjoyment, but also of relief that this somewhat tentative press-night performance had reached its conclusion. I suspect that the company was relieved, as well.
The Secondstage production has three vulnerable areas: script, conception, and technology. Granted, there’s not a whole lot director Keith Alan Baker can do to fill the holes in Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff’s wild child/messiah book. It’s rock ’n’ roll: Tommy is more about effect, passion, and emotion than about such technicalities as “How did that kid ever get to the pinball machine in the first place?” or “How could he buy his mom a Cadillac if he can’t see, hear, or talk?” Baker doesn’t go out of his way to explain how Tommy’s parents can go from neglectful to caring to avaricious to caring again in slightly over one act.
Franklin Labovitz, whose slightly prissy Jackie-esque costumes for Mrs. Walker say more about her character than the script cares to, didn’t necessarily misstep when he dressed his chorus straight out of Old Navy, but when their voices and bodies aren’t emoting enough, the well-scrubbed look doesn’t help. A little more commitment to either rock or opera would help everyone in this rock opera. But it’s not by any means a weak cast. In the title role, Yuval Samburski bears much of the production’s weight on his slender shoulders; the young actor, whose biggest previous parts were with the scrappy little Landless Theatre, brings pathos and a sweetly delicate tenor to bear on the troubled teen. Larry Baldine and, especially, Maddy Wyatt are affecting as the Walkers; Wyatt’s champagne-sotted reprise of “It’s a Boy” at the beginning of Act 2 is one of this production’s best moments. And Jeffery Peterson is a world-class scene-stealer: With an arena-rocker voice—think Jack Black—and a chubby-legged swagger, he finds the dark wit as well as the menace in Cousin Kevin.
Peterson also gets to sing the marquee number, “Pinball Wizard,” and it’s a good thing, because he was alone among the performers on press night who could be heard consistently throughout the show. Some of the actors had lavaliere mikes hidden at the borders of their hair. Others, generally the less-featured players, wore larger, Madonna-style headphone mikes. In some cases, it was hard to tell where the mike was, but in nearly all cases, the amplification wasn’t sufficient to make the lyrics—and thus the story—comprehensible.
On press night, sometimes Baldine could be heard only when he stood in back of Wyatt, his voice then reaching the lavaliere secreted in her button earring. Poor Roseanne Medina, as the Acid Queen, had to clutch her tiny mike to her face during part of her eponymous number. Maybe the sound problems explained why there was so little real passion in her performance—despite an American Idol-worthy ability to belt, she seemed more intent on hitting the high notes than on tripping out young Tommy. Maya Lynne Robinson was much more committed to her “Sally Simpson” numbers. Flailing her arms and legs like some ecstatic arachnid, she sang for all she was worth about—well, about what, exactly, I’m not sure, but she looked and sounded great, and the tune was catchy.
The company has done so many things right that this one thing—making the lyrics audible—shouldn’t sink the production. Jeanne Feeney’s choreography is vigorous and appropriate to the small venue, though, as in the rest of the production, a little sexing up wouldn’t hurt. Giorgos Tsappas has built an economical, evocative set for this theater-in-the-half-round; with its gridded platforms and circles-and-mirrors backdrops in shiny white and reflective chrome, it suggests both the Mod era in which the Who evolved and the machine dreams of the play’s protagonist. The set is enhanced by Colin Bills’ precise lighting, which at the start of Act 2 bathes Mrs. Walker in a champagne glow and her son in starkest white. Tsappas has also added a panel of blinking gold lights for the pinball sequences, and, wisely, he doesn’t overuse them. His best creation is the phone-booth-like plexiglass box that serves as Tommy’s mirror—and also as a representation of the deafness and blindness that confine him. But when Samburski goes into that booth and sings, things go very wrong very quickly; at the production I saw, we were treated not only to faint vocals but also to a screech of feedback, perhaps caused by the enclosure. (The howl repeated itself a few times in chorus scenes, presumably the result of the actors’ positions relative to each other or to stage miking.)
Not that much of the audience for this 35th-anniversary production hasn’t heard feedback before. But it wasn’t thanks to decades of standing, ear-protection-free, in front of Marshall amps that Secondstage’s teeming crowd was able to see, feel, and even metaphorically touch Tommy—but not hear him.CP