During the intermission of the Chance Theater's production of The Who's Tommy at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Founder's Hall Saturday night, I overheard a young lady talking on her cell phone. "Yeah, my boyfriend is playing guitar in this band that's doing Tommy right now," she said. Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that the music, which was impeccable by the way, wasn't prerecorded but being performed live backstage. The live score and the band's high-energy delivery was a nice surprise for anyone, myself included, who has heard Tommy more times than they would care to remember. Shout-outs, therefore, all around to Mike Wilkins (piano/keyboard), Stephen Musselman and Chris Luebeck (guitars), Robert Bowman (bass) and Jorge Zuniga, (drums), invisible champions all.
The music, as spot-on as it was, though, necessarily takes somewhat of a backseat in this production, which isn't so much a musical or rock opera as much as an interpretive dance-influenced, acid-laced light show meets glam rock cabaret performance. Ah yes, the light show. There are times, like when Tommy is doing his Pinball Wizard bit, when what looks and feels like hundreds of lights start blinking to the chiming bells of the machine, and then they bleed into a white flash directed toward the audience, with the effect that you feel like Han Solo about to jump into lightspeed.
The fun--and the evidence of Anaheim High School alum Oanh Nguyen's directorial genius--all starts with the Overture, which depicts Captain Walker joining the RAF and being shot down over Germany, where he's imprisoned for the duration of the war. This sequence, while simply staged, takes place as grainy film reels from the Battle of Britain compete with swerving, air-raid style spotlights and the sounds of V-2 rockets (or something) blaring in the air. By the time young Tommy witnesses his dad shooting Mrs. Walker's boyfriend--this production shares the original Who's version of events rather than that of the 1976 film, in which Capt. Walker perishes--the audience seemed transfixed by the acrobatic, stylistic tour-de-force unfolding onstage.
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It's a good thing the captain doesn't die, too: the character is in good hands with actor Kevin L. Cordova, who brings a kind of a reassuring, stoic veneer to Tommy's familial horrorshow. Other standout performers include Beach Vickers as the pervy Uncle Ernie, who at one point engages in a comic, carnival barker style interaction with the audience, and Clarissa Barton, who delivers a sultry if ultimately sad and desperate rendition of The Gyspy, the LSD-dealing "Acid Queen" prostitute unforgettably played by Tina Turner in the aforementioned film.
There are no less than three Tommys in this play, only one of whom (the non-child actor Mark Bartlett) has a speaking role. His approach to the role takes Tommy as far away from Roger Daltrey as you can get, all the way to The Wall's morose, zombie-like "Pink" character a la Bob Geldof. With his spiked black hair, pale, blood-drained face and white, Clockwork Orange-style costume, Bartlett looks a lot like Halloween's Michael Meyers. Even when he starts singing ("I'm Free," "Sensation," and "Welcome") there's not a trace of the triumphant in his voice. It gives this production a decidedly more stark thematic tone than you'd expect from an OC-based theatrical troupe performing what in other hands could easily fall into the clutches of cloying 1960s nostalgia.
Just don't tell that to the fifty-something, leather-jacketed lady sitting next to me, who stomped her feet and laughed with delightful recognition throughout the entire show, pausing once only briefly to exclaim to anyone who would listen: "This is great! Doesn't it bring you back? Do you even remember those days?" Indeed, the spectacle achieved an adroit artistic balance between fealty and innovation so that someone watching something that's never been done before can somehow believe they're being transported back in time, say to the Isle of Wight circa Summer 1970. Speaking of time, if you don't already have tickets, it's too late: the performance is sold out through its brief run which ends Feb. 21. Just in case, though, consult the below data...
The Who's Tommy, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., (714) 556-2787. Assuming a miracle, any available tickets go for $35 each.