“The Who’s Tommy” (aside from sounding like it should be an Abbott and Costello routine) has one of the most interesting pedigrees in Broadway musical history. “Tommy” started out as a concept album from the rock band The Who, mostly composed by guitarist Pete Townsend, and was adapted into a film in 1975 before ending up as a stage version in 1992, with a book co-written by Townsend and director Des McAnuff.
Given that “The Who’s Tommy” is a true rock opera — consisting, as it does, of music originally created for one of the world’s greatest rock bands — it is a daunting musical for any theater company to mount, but City Theatre’s new production, playing through Sept. 30, shows that the play can be performed with a minimalist aesthetic.
With few sets, props or flashy lighting techniques, City Theatre’s production emphasizes two aspects of “The Who’s Tommy” equally — the music (provided by an enthusiastic, on-stage five-piece band led by musical director Tyler Groft) and the performances. Though the relatively small size of City Theatre’s stage often makes for a crowded scene in a show with 15 cast members, director Jeff Hinkle excels when it comes to creating clear, dialogue-free tableaux during musical interludes that push the story along.
That story itself is a bit uneven. It follows Tommy Walker, a boy who is struck deaf and blind after witnessing a childhood tragedy but who nevertheless becomes a marvel at playing pinball. Much of it, though, feels like padding, added on to turn a one-act concept album into a two-act musical. The music, however, serves as a driving engine that helps keep the pace up even as the script tends to wander.
Though “The Who’s Tommy” is a truly ensemble piece, a few numbers stick out, including the exuberance of Jacob Bernelle, as the adult Tommy, singing “Sensation”; Hilary Werthmann’s throatily seductive turn as the Acid Queen; and Chris Cannata’s irredeemably evil and creepy turn as Tommy’s pedophilic Uncle Ernie singing “Fiddle About.” The show’s multiple featured dancers also excel at Rose Mitchell’s muscular choreography, a particularly challenging feat in such a contained space.
Although it is far from classic fare, “The Who’s Tommy” is a rollicking stage production filled with exuberant performances, a dynamic sound and some standout moments that are solidly entertaining.
“THE WHO’S TOMMY”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 30
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.