Tommy Who?

Uptown Players take on The Who's psychedelic sideshow; Echo Theater goes Sailing to Byzantium

Tommy, we can't hear you. And it's a shame. He still plays a mean pinball, that deaf, dumb and blind kid, but once he snaps out of his self-induced catatonic state, the young pinball wizard can't make any points with the accursed acoustical problems in the Uptown Players' production of The Who's Tommy at the Trinity River Arts Center.

Based on the 1969 concept album written by The Who's Pete Townshend, Tommy was expanded and adapted into a full-scale two-act rock opera in the 1990s by Townshend and director Des MacAnuff. Not to be confused with director Ken Russell's take on it in the 1975 film, the stage show features a throbbing rock 'n' roll score and next to no spoken dialogue. It defies some of the usual rules of musical theater. Act one begins with an overture; act two with an "underture." But it stays true to The Who's big sound. Played at rock volume, it should leave the audience's ears bleeding.

Uptown's Tommy never reaches full rock potential. Opening night was beset by audio mix-ups that stranded many of the show's leading players, including the three Tommys (ages 4, 10 and 21), in the no-mike zone. Sometimes the father (Cameron McElyea) and mother (Lisa Gabrielle-Greene) could be heard, sometimes they couldn't. William Blake, playing Tommy's creepy Cousin Kevin, is a cabaret singer known for belting songs at volumes that make dogs howl in distant counties; here, he's practically Marcel Marceau. It's weird.

Sailing to Byzantium, with Ellen Locy, Carolyn McCormick and Kelly Rypkema, is more of a slow stroll.
Pam Myers-Morgan
Sailing to Byzantium, with Ellen Locy, Carolyn McCormick and Kelly Rypkema, is more of a slow stroll.

Details

Who's Tommy continues through October 23 at Trinity River Arts Center, 214-219-2718 and Sailing to Byzantium continues through October 15 at The Bath House Cultural Center, 214-904-0500

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Even if they fix the singers' head-mikes and the amplification problems onstage in this intimate theater, there's still the band to contend with. Tucked behind scenic designer Wade Giampa's unwieldy set pieces--center stage features a mini-stage resembling an enormous gray toilet seat with the lid up--the live music comes out strangely muffled. Sometimes only the drummer can be heard. It's impossible to separate the guitars from the keyboards. Entire melodies are swallowed up. (Lee Harris conducts and plays piano for the six-piece combo.)

With the whole score reduced to a rumbling stew of noise, Townshend's lyrics are all but lost. And those lyrics, some of them achingly poetic, tell the strange story of Tommy.

The show begins with a long, wordless vignette in which we see Tommy's dad, Captain Walker, return home from WWII to find his wife in the arms of another man. In front of his son, the father shoots and kills the lover, then insists to 4-year-old Tommy (played by Blake Bergerman) that he's heard and seen nothing. That sends the boy into a sort of autistic fugue state, staring into a full-length mirror, rocking back and forth. His mother tries a series of medical treatments but nothing snaps Tommy out of it. A pedophile uncle (Chip Holderman), left home alone with the boy, molests him.

At 10, Tommy (the mesmerizing Alexander Ferguson) is put in front of a pinball machine by Cousin Kevin. He turns into a pinball savant and attracts an almost religious following among young Mods. In a scene that should be a high point in the show, but isn't here, Tommy comes under the spell of the vampy Acid Queen (Sara Shelby-Martin), an LSD-dropping gypsy. (Shelby-Martin plays her as a Goth Kaye Ballard.)

A broken mirror causes the 21-year-old Tommy (Casey Robinson) to experience flashbacks of the murder. He emerges from his silent world with the anthem "I'm Free," one of the show's best tunes. Sickened to find himself surrounded by sycophants who follow him everywhere, he tries to teach them that idol worship is an empty pursuit--a message The Who were ready to pound at their fans at the height of their popularity at the end of the swingin' '60s.

It's a powerful, if flawed, rock opera--better than Godspell certainly, not as good as Hair. The best numbers--"See Me, Feel Me," "Pinball Wizard," "We're Not Gonna Take It"--long ago got co-opted into commercial theme songs. The show's overture underscores a Clarinex ad. Still, there's something beautiful and hypnotic about Tommy. Like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd's The Wall, it stands as testament to a rock superstar's willingness to experiment with storytelling back in the day.

In the few scenes where their voices can be heard, Uptown's cast of strong singers, under Bruce R. Coleman's direction, seems to be giving it their all, particularly young Ferguson (son of Dallas actors Terri and Chamblee Ferguson), Robinson (last seen at Uptown in his birthday suit in Love! Valour! Compassion!) and Courtney Franklin, who has one spectacular number at the end of act two as Tommy's schoolgirl sweetheart, Sally Simpson. Choreography by Vicki Squires is too frenetic by half, but the handsome dancers manage it all without bumping into each other or falling down. Costumes by Suzi Shankle and Bill Bullard mix Carnaby Street with a touch of Vegas Elvis tribute, but the results are pleasing enough to the eye.

As mixed reviews go, consider this the print version of one hand clapping.


What's worse, not being able to hear a rock musical or sweating like a mule in a theater as hot as a boxcar? The Bath House Cultural Center had to replace its air conditioning just as Echo Theater was opening Sandra Deer's period drama Sailing to Byzantium. Opening night was postponed two days to get the air situation repaired. But even with a new compressor, when the lights finally went up on the show, so did the temperature inside the theater.

Shutting off the air conditioning during performances is standard procedure in many theaters. Theatre Three chills down to sub-arctic levels before curtain time then cuts off its a/c, letting the temp rise to something approximating comfort level without the machinery roaring on mid-show. Theatergoers know to wear layers there, peeling down as the stage lights heat up the space.

On opening night of Sailing to Byzantium, however, they didn't quite have the on-off timing figured out. During the first act, the Bath House started to feel like one. When the a/c kicked back on more than a half-hour into the evening, the audience could finally stop fanning madly with the programs and concentrate on the action onstage.

Not that there is much. Sailing is more of a slow stroll. In the home of writer Olivia Shakespear (Ellen Locy), Irish poet William Butler Yeats (Bill Jenkins) attempts to woo his longtime lover, suspected spy and revolutionary Maud Gonne (Carolyn McCormick). Wrapped up in the fight for Irish home rule, Gonne rebuffs Yeats, which makes the married Olivia's heart go pitter-pat; she's had a thing for Yeats for years. Enter "the penniless poet from Idaho," Ezra Pound (Ashley Wood), who's there as Yeats' secretary and to propose to Olivia's pretty daughter, Dorothy (Kelly Rypkema).

Everyone talks a blue streak in this play, set in 1916. They yammer about poetry, art and the addictive qualities of romantic love. Says Pound: "History and literature will tell us that the price of true love is suicide." Sort of a glass-half-empty guy, that Pound.

On Chase Corker's doily-strewn set, the characters sip tea and nibble cucumber sandwiches, making like Masterpiece Theatre for more than two hours. They even hold a séance, contacting the spirit of a sculptor friend of Pound's who recently has died on a battlefield in WWI.

Echo's cast, directed by Linda Leonard, acquits itself admirably, posh accents and all. Carolyn McCormick gives a quiet, earthy performance as Gonne. Ashley Wood has fire in his eyes as Pound. There's just not a lot more to get hold of in Sailing to Byzantium, not any one character to fall in love with or engrossing mystery to solve. Just pretty people saying pretty things, which isn't quite enough.

With the air conditioning humming nicely though, act two provided several pleasant opportunities for short naps.

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