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St. Louis by Richard Green

The Who's Tommy
Stray Dog Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Nuts

Tommy
Antonio Rodriguez, Josh Douglas and chorus members
Justin Been and Gary F. Bell's big new musical is a marvel of precision, charm, beauty and tenderness—terms you don't usually associate with the topic of "rock opera." But forty-two years after the birth of Tommy as a double-album LP, it's almost as if Pete Townsend's sentimental rock tunes have come down to us now from the dark side of the Muny.

That said, the young lady who cuts my hair went totally blank as I described Tommy to her. Or maybe Jamie thought I didn't know the difference between The Who and Pink Floyd (and, let's face it, she's probably right). But she's not even 26 yet and parachute pants are probably something entirely new and different to her. So, for her benefit ...

We used to have this music called "rock and roll," see? And it expressed the feelings of young people in rebellion, growing up in the proud shadow of the "greatest generation" who marched off to fight a tiny, tiny opponent and win World War II. And then these victors, these parents, told us, as little children, to be ready to be incinerated at any moment by a nuclear holocaust. Good times.

And from that red-hot anvil, and from the war in Vietnam, came an even more rebellious strain of rock, involving a lot of anguished shouting and carrying-on, at the strange price of Cold War dominance. Enter Pete Townsend, of The Who, who wrote the words and music for Tommy at the height of it all.

But 23 years later (ignoring the 1975 movie musical), in the 1992 stage production, Mr. Townsend and his co-authors jumped a few steps ahead of Townsend's original audience, who focused on peace and love as an end to all the intolerable blood-lust. Now, with the Cold War well behind them, his music seems to wonder if "peace" was really preferable to "love." In the stage production, Tommy is still deaf, dumb and blind after a childhood trauma. But he also has a strange, perfect peace, making him the envy of a horrified, outraged younger generation. And, with the benefit of historical hindsight, he seems to discover the peace of love itself, and leads us to the very brink of the sexual revolution (which his original work could not anticipate). The story ends right before that epoch, leaving our youthful idealism nicely intact. It now captures a magical moment after war and horror, and before love and (you might say) excess.

Antonio Rodriquez is dashing and innocent and outstanding as Tommy, leading us through his childhood with the help of his younger selves (played by the adorable Audrey Manalang and Braden Phillips). Mr. Rodriguez, along with Jeffrey M. Wright and Paula Stoff Dean (as his parents) ground the simple story, as masters of the musical theater idiom, and lend naturalism to a triptych of a storyline.

But it's "bad boys" Josh Douglas and Ryan E. Glosemeyer who are dazzling as creepy Uncle Ernie and bullying Cousin Kevin, particularly in act two. I wish every actor had at least half their magnetism. The unstoppable, unflappable soprano Kay Love is on hand, too, making real her mimed intervention as a doctor (and elsewhere as a minister) in the early going. And all the way through, the chorus is works like a magnificent machine, thanks to choreographer J.T. Ricroft and music director Chris Petersen.

It's a great show, from a company that seems to know no other kind.

Through October 22, 2011, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. The street runs one-way (north) between Sidney and Shenandoah, about six blocks south of I-44, just east of Grand Ave. (Don't forget, the viaduct over the rail yards on Grand is down for re-construction, between there and I-64.) The parking situation is very good. For more information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them online at www.straydogtheatre.org.

Cast
Tommy Walker: Antonio Rodriguez
Captain Walker: Jeffrey M. Wright
Mrs. Walker: Paula Stoff Dean
Tommy, age four: Audrey Manalang
Tommy, age 10: Braden Phillips
Cousin Kevin: Ryan E. Glosemeyer
Uncle Ernie: Josh Douglas
The Minister: Kay Love
Ensemble: C.E. Fifer, Lindsey Jones, Andrea Kimberling, Austin Pierce, Sarah Porter, Anna Skidis

Band
Music Director/Keyboard: Chris Petersen
Drummer: Sean Lanier
Electric Bass: Michael Monsey
Guitar I: Adam Rugo
Synthesizer: Sallie Du Maine Cole

Crew
Directed by: Justin Been and Gary F. Bell
Music Direction by: Chris Petersen
Choreography by: J.T. Ricroft
Set Design: Justin Been and James Volmert, Jr.
Lighting Design: Tyler Duenow
Costume Design: Alexandra Scibetta Quigley
Production Design: Justin Been
Audio Engineer: Lucas Clopton
Technical Director: James Volmert, Jr.
Production Manager: Jay V. Hall

Photo: John C. Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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