City Theatre brings rock opera ‘The Who’s Tommy’ to life

“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.

Contributed by Aleks Ortynski

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.

Contributed by Aleks Ortynski

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.
Cost: $20-$45
Information: citytheatreaustin.org


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