The CLO production of The Who's Tommy is a great-looking, well-cast production. However, despite the emotional events depicted (including infidelity, murder, molestation, and police abuse), it never really comes to life. It's as if we are watching the story unfold on screen, without the visceral bond created by live theatre. The story is well told, the songs generally well sung, and the pace is fast, but there is a vast distance between the actors and the audience. The exception is that the pounding rock score, presented superbly by the CLO orchestra, still makes a connection, more than thirty years after it was written.
The Who's self-proclaimed rock opera debuted as a concept recording in 1969, which was followed by a star-studded film adaptation, and a recording with the London Symphony (both in 1975). What seemed to be a logical step, transferring Tommy to the stage, took another 18 years, but the show finally reached Broadway in the spring of 1993 and ran for 899 performances. The story follows young Tommy Walker, who was born in London during WWII and, after witnessing a violent event, is rendered deaf, dumb and blind. Though his parents seek many kinds of cures, he remains completely detached and is subjected to abuse and ridicule. A physical connection with the outside world is finally made when the teenaged Tommy is introduced to a pinball machine; as illustrated in the rock classic "Pinball Wizard," Tommy becomes a celebrity through his uncanny talents with the machine. Eventually, another shocking event literally brings Tommy to his senses. His miraculous "cure" brings another kind of celebrity exploitation, from which he seeks to distance himself.
Though as a whole this production falls short, there are some fine performances to be enjoyed. As Tommy's mother and father, Alice Ripley and Matt Farnsworth create perfect examples of working class parents of the 1940s-1950s era. Limited by her character's personality and situation, Ripley stays subdued and serious. Able to bring Mrs. Walker's emotions to the surface in the song "Smash the Mirror," she shows this release without going overboard. Farnsworth stoically depicts a war veteran trying to be a good husband and father. He and Ripley both sing their parts very well.
A real highlight is the performance of John Scherer as drunkard and molester, Uncle Ernie. Local audiences have had the opportunity to witness Scherer's incredible versatility, through productions of By Jeeves (Bertie), 1776 (Richard Henry Lee), and The Pirates of Penzance (Police Sergeant). His turn as Uncle Ernie is appropriately creepy, and he excels in his musical moments. Another great casting coup is Jared Stein as Tommy's Cousin Kevin, who is perfect as the young brat who uses Tommy as a source of amusement.
There are three actors portraying Tommy. All do their best to play the difficult portion of Tommy's life, when he is on his feet but catatonic. Young Allie Rachel Ryave, not aided by a poor wig, does a great job as four-year-old Tommy and shows a very nice voice. As ten-year-old Tommy, Connor McRory acts well; he has trouble staying on pitch during some solo work, but that could be due to difficulty in hearing the orchestra. Manley Pope (Rent on Broadway) completes the trio and presents a very energetic and eager performance. Once Tommy is released from his sensory limitations, Pope delivers his songs like a rock star, though with frequently sloppy diction.
Though the set (provided by Gateway Playhouse) is not sparse, the design contributes to an overall starkness in this production. Projections are used quite effectively for the early time periods of the story. Set pieces moved on and off stage by the hard-working cast are fitting and work well, as do costumes by Costume World, Inc. However, the projections used in the later scenes, as well as the arch of TV monitors seem to be trying to bring the show a more contemporary feel. However, the show's final scenes are specifically rooted in the 1960s and the high-tech look, along with Pope's contemporary appearance, fight awkwardly with what has thus far been a period piece.
The Who's Tommy continues at the Benedum Center through July 24. For ticket and performance information, call 412-456-6666 or visit http://www.pittsburghclo.org/.