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Out of Town

A Star Studded Tommy Scores at the Kennedy Center

A Star Studded Tommy Scores at the Kennedy Center

Tommy, can you see me?

As directed and choreographed with a fevered energy and strong sense of style by Josh Rhodes (Encores’ Grand Hotel), the piece dives in deep with a highly ambitious retelling of the story about a “deaf, dumb and blind” kid, who rises up past his sensorial blocks to generate fervor and adoration as a cult pop hero. Played by three, Tommy is created out of trauma of a war he never sees, and the violence that swirls around him.  The set-up plays out within the lyric-free overture, in front of a cold blue metallic and geometric projection of love, war, destruction, and renewal, courtesy of the dynamically visceral scenic and projection design by Paul Tate dePoll III (Kennedy Center’s The Music Man), with hot and compelling lighting by Jake DeGroot (RTC’s The Robber Bridegroom), solid sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels), and concise costuming by Andrea Hood (NYTW’s Love and Information). The look is profound and exhilarating, and even when the overly busy and structured moving rectangular boxes become too much, the ideas and creativity satisfy the senses never completely overwhelming us.  The boy, on the other hand, is feeling the tremors of his world and his complex surrounds, just as Townsend once stated in 1968, that “he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That’s really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play“. So we watch on and join with the emotions and the ideas through our other fired up senses, taking it all in and experiencing his pain and frustration, even when the intellectualism of the framework gets convoluted and jammed up. 

03_Christian Borle and Mandy Gonzalez_Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Christian Borle, Mandy Gonzalez. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.

Tommy, can you feel me? 

It’s a boy” the mother is told happily in troubled times during the years of the war, but the young and optimistic Mrs. Walker, portrayed solidly by the strong and earthy-voiced Mandy Gonzalez (Broadway’s In the Heights), has difficulty seeing the complications that lie ahead for herself and her family, or even a way through the violent mistakes. Her war-torn returning husband, the brash and impulsive Captain Walker, deftly portrayed by the fantastic Christian Borle (Broadway’s FalsettosSomething Rotten!) is a surprise, you might say (on numerous levels), as troubled and disjointed from his wartime experiences as anyone in that contrary family dreaming of “Christmas“. After the shot that changes it all blazons forth, a four and then ten year old Tommy, portrayed by Declan Fennel (Signature’s Billy Elliot) at first, and then Hudson Loverro (Broadway’s School of Rock) soon after, finds himself trapped by trauma, lost inside his reflection without any obvious pathways for escape. The two young actors do a remarkable job finding the way to play “that deaf, dumb and blind kid” in an empathetic caring manner, even as the parents frantically attempt to cure his condition anyway they can try. And after attempt after flawed attempt, the adult Tommy finally flies in. Attempting to rise up to the cause by a very game Casey Cott (CW’s “Riverdale“), the handsome leading man delivers a well meaning Tommy, but one that doesn’t seem to carry the depth of voice and soul to elicit the heightened celebratory worship that his mother smashes in out of frustration. Her act creates a “Sensation” freeing him of his mental blocks and ushering in “Sally Simpson“, lovingly portrayed by Taylor Iman Jones (Broadway’s Head Over Heels) in an oddly throw away plot line and commentary on the worshipping of cultish religious leaders. Tommy retreats inward again, serenading the lot to “See Me, Feel Me” as he fades back into what really captivates the elusive hero. Cott fluctuates, just like the complicated Tommy, hitting the strides but never reaching the level of adoration that this show requires and seemingly demands.

14_Casey Cott and Taylor Iman Jones_Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Casey Cott, Taylor Iman Jones. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Tommy, can you touch me?

But in this oddly constructed exploration of PTSD and celebrity worshipping, of disconnection and connected compassion, the creations that float in touching the young man in as many ways as you can imagine are where a lot of the juicy power-ball excitements exist in The Who’s Tommy. Brashly and brilliantly igniting the fire of sexuality and LSD fantasia is the illicit Gypsy, made famous (at least for me) by the legendary Tina Turner whose power could never be denied. Here in this softened down extravaganza, the “Acid Queen” of the Underground explodes forth with energy and excitement at just the right time by the uber-talented Kimberly Nichole (NBC’s ‘The Voice’, 8th season) finally torching up the momentum and energy of the show. She, and a few standout chorus members, Trina Mills and Khori Petinaud, fire up the energy and enthusiasm of the packed auditorium, lighting up a fire that up to this point seems to have been merely sitting back and taking it all in.

Do you think it’s all right to leave the boy with Uncle Earnie” she asks, as the wicked relative sneaks in to “Fiddle About” behind closed doors. It’s one of the creepiest and most uncomfortable songs of the evening, pretty much of any musicals I can think of, but the number is perfectly presented by Manu Narayan (Broadway’s Gettin’ the Band…).  He brings comic timing to a part that is profoundly disturbing but always captivating, especially with his icky and fantastic Act 2 song and dance, “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”.

Behind other closed doors, beautifully created by the inventive Wesley Taylor (Broadway’s SpongeBob…), Tommy‘s wicked and sadistic thug-Cousin Kevin takes the creepy uncomfortable relations and heightens the discomfort with violent glee. He does a phenomenal job keeping us engaged and not tuned out. Taylor’s work impresses,  brilliantly hitting hard just the right amount of humorous sadism with his twisted facial expressions and pulling off his aerobic and athletic songs with ease, making us want to look away, but somehow he keeps us present and accounted for.

12_Wesley Taylor, Mandy Gonzalez, Casey Cott, Declan Fennell, and Hudson Loverro_Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Wesley Taylor, Mandy Gonzalez, Casey Cott, Declan Fennell, Hudson Loverro. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Tommy, can you heal me?

The pinballs fly, and the hypnotic vibrations and visualizations ratchet up the points, leading us towards that winning score. It’s a production to be celebrated, just like the born again Tommy, but all in all, I can’t say this feast of musicality completely invigorates nor captivates my soul. A more electric leading man might have helped, but I think, at least for this player, the overall game lacks the rhyme and the reason to play.  The larger than life themes ignite but rarely catch fire for very long, leaving us dangling and wondering what Townsend was trying to say. The big thematic bursts explode, but the overall left me a bit numb. It is as if I played one of those annoyingly loud and clangy pinball machines for a bit too long, and my eyes and ears can’t feel the vibrations any longer. It was fun while it lasted, but the lasting is short lived.

02_Casey Cott_Tommy_Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Casey Cott (center) with the cast of The Who’s Tommy. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.

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Out of Town

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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