June 21, 2006

Stage Write

The Who's Tommy – A Rock n' Roll Experience At Bay Street

It began with the music.

And it is the music that triumphs in Bay Street Theatre's production of The Who's Tommy, which rocks the house complete with a vibrant singing and dancing ensemble cast and kickin' live band. The show will run through July 9.

The original version of Tommy began as bits and pieces of music swirling around in the head of Pete Townshend asking to be seen, heard and felt. It was only through collaboration with his fellow band mates and managers, according to the program notes, that the story really took shape. The Broadway version credits Townshend and two-time Tony award winner Des McAnuff with the book, music and lyrics by Townshend and additional music and lyrics by Who band members John Entwistle and Keith Moon.

In the story, what begins with a childhood trauma of a brutal memory he was forced to forget, morphs into a boy's locked inner world and the outer world's efforts to penetrate it. Instead of putting him on Ritalin and getting him a therapist, Tommy's parents raise him in the school of hard knocks. Like a rock and roll Helen Keller, Tommy has teachers who are neighborhood bullies, acid gypsy queens (with a strong solo performance by Shelby Braxton-Brooks), and ultimately a pinball machine which was only added to the original story as an afterthought because one of the rock critics was a pinball aficionado.

Deaf, dumb and blind, the psychological agoraphobic young Tommy is played by sixth grader Noah Galvin with great feeling, using only facial expressions to elicit compassion from the audience for his plight. Euan Morton takes the baton to portray the adult Tommy who emerges from his shell with a lively "I'm Free" and rises to an emotional crescendo in his duet with Galvin of younger and older Tommy singing "See Me, Feel Me." Best known for his acclaimed portrayal of Boy George in Taboo, Morton has also embarked on a singing career with a debut album New Clear.

The Overture serves as a reminder for anyone who's heard The Who in the past of the familiarity of this score. Under music director Roger Butterley, live French horn, guitar, bass, keyboard and drums enthusiastically played in the side ranks of the audience draw in the listener (although complimentary ear plugs are provided, most wouldn't need or want them). The eclectic ensemble cast brings great energy to director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge and associate choreographer Josh Walden's staging which spills into the aisles. The simple set of a catwalk with a wall for projections designed by Wendall K. Harrington of everything from a concentration camp to a psychiatric hospital to a laundromat, combines with different lighting and colors to provide contextual variety. Costume designer Martha Bromelmeier gives us a great twist on the military uniform which might win the war or at least distract the enemy. Look for the comeback of the brown fishnet thigh highs.

The first act moves at a brisk clip, although the beginning of the second seems to lag a bit except for the fine duo by Tommy's parents played by Liz Pearce and Mike McGowan. The liberated Tommy's life which has been taken over by fans and promoters, is less interesting than his inner life. As he says to his entourage, "I'm finally more like you but you want to be more like me." Yet it is the best known songs and ensemble singing which captivate the audience like the crowd pleaser "Listening To You." By the time the finale comes around, everyone is singing together.

So what is the best compliment a show can receive? A flushed woman looking at her friend and asking, "So are you coming back tomorrow night too?"

The Who's Tommy will be on stage at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor through July 9. Call the box office at 725-9500 or visit www.Baystreet.org for show times.

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