by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
The annual mid-summer musicals presented by Players by the Sea have become a tradition much anticipated by local theatre patrons for several reasons. The principal reasons are that Players selects such interesting musicals and performs them so very well. This year’s Tommy that opened July 15 and runs through August 6 meets and exceeds the high standards they have set in previous years.
In 1969 the legendary British rock group “The Who” debuted “Tommy,” a rock opera conceived by band member and principal author, Peter Townshend, and the rest is musical history. The Who performed the popular concert version in many venues, which culminated in a Metropolitan Opera Performance in 1970. In 1975, a film adaptation with lead singer Roger Daltrey in the title role featured such notables as Ann Margaret, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, Elton John, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson.
In 1993 Des McAnuff and Townshend wrote and produced the Broadway musical Tommy that went on to win five Tony Awards, and joined the unofficial Rock Opera Hall of Fame along with Jesus Christ, Superstar and Hair.
A simple plot summary would go like this: A British child witnesses the accidental shooting of his mother’s lover by his father, a World War II veteran previously declared killed in action, who unexpectedly reappears after an absence of six years. The resulting trauma leaves Tommy blind, deaf, and dumb until, as a teenager, he discovers an unexplained and uncanny ability to excel at pinball, which leads to international fame. His journey back to reality follows in a most interesting story.
Even if you are not a fan of rock opera, and regardless of your age, you will find this Staci Cobb directed musical mesmerizing. The action is continuous, with scenes moving on and off the stage one after another so quickly that you will barely find time to applaud.
Look at the program before the show and you will see over thirty songs listed, and since this is an “opera” there is little spoken dialogue. Many of the musical numbers are very short. “Pinball Wizard,” the big hit from Tommy, and the powerful “See Me, Feel Me” were both top tunes some years ago.
There are eight principal characters, with twenty other cast members, each playing multiple roles. Two young actors play Tommy in the early years and both give remarkable performances. Dante Gonzalez is the 4-year old; Tadan Middleton is the 10-year old.
Tracy Olin as Mrs. Walker and Josh Waller as Captain Walker are terrific as Tommy’s parents. Bill Ratliff is funny and scary at the same time as the evil and sinister Uncle Ernie. Juan Unzueta as Cousin Kevin sings the electrifying “Pinball Wizard,” joined by pinball lads played by Joe Walz and Dominique Lawson, along with other cast members. The talented Aaron Marshall makes a stab at curing Tommy as the Acid Queen; Ms. Marshall also plays second guitar in the band. In the title role is the handsome and gifted Jacksonville University student, Ross Frontz, an excellent singer in a charismatic portrayal of Tommy.
When you read the biographies of this super ensemble, you will be impressed by the experience of the actors. This wonderful cast has theatre credits from all the local community, professional, high school and college stages. This is a cast that is constantly coming and going on stage in various roles throughout the show, and then doing all that dynamic dancing based on the brilliant choreography of Kellina Chavouostie.
The principals are miked so you will understand all the words clearly. And although it is rock music, the band never overpowers the singers or overwhelms the audience. Yes, you can hear the music but it is never ear piercing. Led by Musical Director Samuel Clein, the members of the band include Zeek Smith (keyboard), Daniel Hunting (guitar), Aaron Marshall (guitar), Damon Martin (bass) and Landon Baker (percussion).
The set designed by Matt Calise, Lee Hamby and Partick Richart, is very dynamic. The floor replicates the floor of a pinball machine, in aged red, orange, green and black, while the walls are white. Set pieces are brought onstage when needed. A large video screen, with video design by Devlin Mann, is located high at center stage, which shows the dates of various scenes (ranging from 1940 to 1963), enhances the action on the stage, and allows access to Tommy’s inner experience.
This may be the most extensive light design ever at Players, with over 140 light cues and some improvisation as well. Technical Director/Lighting Designer Jim Wiggins and Stage Manager Susan Roche are constantly on the move as the action is fast and furious especially in the ensemble dances.
A large number of costumes were required, that reflected the changes in fashion during the time period of the play. The creative costume design by Lee Hamby includes everything from uniforms for members of the military and medical staff to brightly colored choir robes, dresses with the short skirts of the war era, and a white jumpsuit for Tommy.
Members of this outstanding cast also include: Gary Baker, Anthony Bido, Rhyan Clemenz, Leanne Gullo, Alec Hadden, Lee Hamby, Rob Harrington, Rico Lastrapes, Larisa Melkumova, Amanda Morales, Christy Mull, Chelsae Newberry (who also has a technical role as Dance Captain), Leslie Richart, Chris Robertson, Janaye Rodgers, Kasi Walters, Daniel Wiggins and Elyn Wolfe.
This is Staci Cobb’s debut as a musical theatre director in the beaches area; she has previously directed two plays at Theatre Jacksonville. We are sure it won’t be her last if Ms. Cobb can find the time, since she is very much in demand as a performer on local stages. In September, she will be in Chicago which is Players opening production for the 2011-2012 season.
Take advantage of the opportunity to see this unique and historical musical which is artistically and technically demanding and therefore done infrequently. And bring lots of quarters. The lobby is filled with real pinball machines that can be played for a quarter with the funds raised going toward theatre projects. You may find you too can play a mean pinball!!
The Who's TOMMY
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM