By John Roche
The White Plains Performing Arts Center’s Spotlight season of musicals is intended to strip down plays in order to focus on their music and lyrics, and what better way to kick that off than by breathing new life into such classic songs as “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?”
The Who’s Tommy, which opened last weekend at WPPAC, offers an electrifying blend of classic rock and Broadway musical. Dubbed the first rock opera, Tommy tells the story of a young boy who, after witnessing a murder involving his parents, is thrust into a catatonic state, only to eventually emerge from it as an adult and be propelled to celebrity status thanks to his gift for playing pinball.
The stage musical was adapted for Broadway from The Who’s double album Tommy, and a 1975 film based on the record. Featuring hit after hit after hit, it won the Best Original Score Tony Award, as well as eight others, in 1993.
This production on the WPPAC stage at City Center in White Plains features minimal production elements, which, as was the goal, allows both cast and audience to key in on the songs, “to celebrate the music and lyrics,” as WPPAC’s artistic director Jeremy Quinn explained.
And celebrate it does.
Rather than an elaborate set, the stage rather simply features the seven-member band in full view—fittingly serving as the centerpiece of this musical featuring such iconic songs. The minimal set also creates ample space for the ensemble choreography throughout the show, but even more so, gives the cast’s energy room to breathe.
Heading that cast is Cody Ryan as Tommy, who serves as narrator for the first act before grabbing the reins as the play’s star for the second act’s rocking, wild ride. In Ryan’s talented hands, celebratory rock anthems such as “I’m Free” and “Sensation” are the perfect blend of familiar and fresh to audience members, most who are visibly tapping their feet or slapping their thighs to those and other songs.
Megan Smith nicely fills the role of Mrs. Walker, Tommy’s mother, and Matthew Curtis covers the range of the Captain Walker character from war hero to murderously jealous husband to frustrated father searching for some way to “cure” his son from being locked deep inside himself.
Brandon T. Singel and Thomas Alfredo portray Tommy at two stages in his youth, and their ability to stay catatonic as a slew of characters sing and dance virtually right in their faces and as rock music blares from the live band just steps away can’t be an easy task.
Joe York’s looming stage presence and booming voice also stand out, with York playing multiple roles including The Minister and The Hawker. He is among several members of the ensemble who take on several roles, and the ensemble ably backs the featured characters throughout.
Elizabeth Pryce Davies literally gets to strut her stuff as The Gypsy, turning in a sultry performance of the rip-roaring song “The Acid Queen” and matching the vibrant, seductive power that Tina Turner brought to the same role in the film version.
Brian J. Conklin oozes boozy and wickedness as Uncle Ernie, who both sexually abuses his nephew during his deaf, dumb and blind state as a child, then tries to capitalize on his growing fame when Tommy reaches young adulthood. DJ Petrosino equally shines in sinister fashion as Cousin Kevin, as well as other ensemble roles.
Greg Baccarini’s choreography and direction accomplish the task of moving the plot along but more importantly keeping the spotlight on the music. (As part of its 10th anniversary seasons, WPPAC will stage another Spotlight production of a classic musical, with Hair on tap for May, preceded by Mainstage productions of the award-winning dramas The Color Purple in February and The Importance of Being Earnest in April.)
For fans of The Who, the current production of Tommy offers an exciting twist to the songs from that pivotal album, but even those who might not think of themselves as Who fans will know most of the songs penned by the legendary Pete Townsend, since “Pinball Wizard” and others are firmly cemented in pop culture.
The production had a few Opening Night glitches and stumbles on Dec. 7, but the show went seamlessly the following night, leaving the audience as energized as the exuberant cast by the final curtain.
After running this past weekend, The Who’s Tommy takes a break until just after Christmas, resuming for performances on Dec. 27-30. For more information or tickets, call (914) 328-1600, order online at www.wppac.com or visit the box office at the theater, located at 11 City Place, City Center, 3rd floor, in White Plains.