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May 4, 1999

The Who's Who of "Tommy"

A Review by Ernie and Pat Pinson

One thing's for sure, when The Joe Jefferson Players' curtain goes up they go all out for a production. The energy level was so high that the band had to be toned down for the second half because so much was being lost in language; and that was a shame, for Rock music partly depends on sheer volume for its distinction. But either the band had to be tamed or the mikes (if any) on stage had to be turned way up, which evidently was impossible. Add to that the extremely fast action, the 21 scene changes, the 28 member cast on and off stage every minute, the 7 member band, the 50 "behind the scenes" group, and the 20 member production staff, and that makes close to 100 people putting on this play! The "grand pity" is the auditorium was only two thirds full for this opening night.

Of course energy and numbers alone do not a good play make. And this play over the years has lost some of its original glow. Thirty years ago (released in 1969) the music of "Tommy" caused a sensation. Banned in British media and parts of US radio, "Pinball Wizard," "The Acid Queen," "I'm Free," and "See Me, Feel Me" seem tame, almost under-expressed by today's standards. Indeed, the play seemed to us somewhat lackluster despite its electron/proton energy cast. But its the sameness in the music score -- not the plot, not the acting, not the band's playing -- that needs retooling.

But what delightful costumes and sets! The stage is laid out on a grid, two elaborate staircases lead to the upper floor, the same color and material of the staircase blend with the stage curtain, the bottom part of the stair turns into an elaborate color pinball machine, the props all move on rollers for fast placement, a robed choir, dance hall guys and girls, psychologically stylized movements by the hospital test group -- add to that a mirror that reflects Tommy's inner/outer being and you have a well conceived set for 28 people on a fairly small stage.

The plot, while psychologically complex, can be quickly summarized. Tommy as a young lad has witnessed in a mirror's reflection the murder of his mother's lover when his father unexpectedly returns home from World War II battlegrounds. Tommy is so traumatizes that he goes into mental shock and looses all senses, no talking, no hearing, no seeing. Molestation by his drunken Uncle and mockery through sadistic games by his cousin's gang does further damage to his psyche. The parents try everything -- six years of therapy can't cure him, visits by relatives can't, friends canít, a prostitute can't, drugs can't -- nothing will bring him out of this regression. Finally through sheer frustration, his mother breaks the mirror (symbolic of his regression) and Tommy is set free. Now this cult hero finally rejoins the human race when he tells his following not to center on him, but to accept him as one of them.

Obviously no review can cover all cast members and all events; we'll have to focus on only a few. We especially liked the integration of the three Tommys in whites and in mirror scenes and the way the upper/lower stage levels were used to show which Tommy was in control at the time. Roy Truxillo was just superb both as singer and actor, and as narrator and adult Tommy. Mrs. Walker (Ginger Gossman) was a bit too overwhelming for husband Capt. Walker (Tom Williams), especially in singing and animation. It was hard for us to adjust to Ginger's contradictory dual role of loving mother and prostitute, but she clearly has the physical and musical talents for both. Brad Byrne also did well as Cousin Kevin especially in the scene where he throws Tommy around, and Chris Schodlbauer and Blake Curtis have just enough quiet innocence in their youth to make the inner id of Tommy seem real. The "UH-UH-UH-UHĒ choir singing scene was attractive both in musical harmony and in choreography (bravo Angelique Turk). And that delightful Ashley Arcement as Sally who danced and talked and saved Tommy (and also the play's ending) -- is she really only in the 10th grade?

Thematically, the play does have a trite ending. Tommy is rescued by love, "feels salvation through the touch of forgiveness, is healed and becomes whole." The cast then adds a moving "finale to the finale" as they come out post curtain chanting "Pete be with you. And also with you. Let us Rock." and singing to/with the audience "Pinball Wizard."

There's just one other thing -- if only that huge door-mirror had been really smashed instead of pushed off stage into darkness, just think of the drama in that! But who can afford those kind of mirrors for every show, right?

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001