San Diego Rep’s A Kinder, Gentler ‘Tommy’
By Marianne Regan
The “Who’s Tommy” rock opera is getting a full re-mount at the San Diego Repertory Theater, 20 years after it’s premier at La Jolla Playhouse. It’s a big, loud, flashy, splashy show that does not disappoint. Director Sam Woodhouse gives the show a great, big rock concert feel and the 18-piece orchestra-slash-rock band (all members of San Diego’s School of Creative and Performing Arts — SCPA) delighted the older audience members, as they relieved their ’60s once again.
During “Sam’s Salon,” which Woodhouse offers before each performance, the discussion ranged from when did concept albums begin to how a rock opera is different from traditional opera. Helping Woodhouse was Nick Reveles, the Geisel director of education and outreach for San Diego Opera whose radio program “Opera Talk” is on UCSD-TV.
Woodhouse’s “Tommy” is a kinder, gentler show in that the pedophilia and other child abuse is hinted at instead of dramatized. In fact, the ensemble members indicate their characters, instead of a full-on emoting that you find in traditional theater. Nevertheless, I found the relationship between the young Tommy and his parents very affecting. Their need to find help for what today might be diagnosed as their seemingly autistic son, was at the heart of the story, more so than Tommy’s emergence as a Pinball Wizard and unlikely demi-god.
While two younger actors portray Tommy at different ages, B. Slade portrays the adult Tommy. Possessing a voice that is, in itself, a full orchestra, Slade hit the high notes, low notes and screaming notes with a power that knocks you out of your seat. However, I found the adult Tommy lacking the warmth and vulnerability that the child Tommy possessed and so you neither rooted for him nor cared about what ultimately happened to him. At the end, after he has declined to be their leader, his fans desert him, vowing to “forget him, better still.” And so you do too.
The most surprising element of the production was the use of the student musicians. Several times, the upstage screen pulled back to reveal four nascent rock stars – playing their electric ax’s with a fervor typical of our generation’s rock gods. The circular downstrumming, the falling to the knees, the string plucking to evince and hold a high note — not only was I humming the music as I left the stage, but I wanted to go back and attend a Who concert all over again.
“TOMMY” is playing until Aug. 14 at the Lyceum Stage. Visit sdrep.org.
“The Who’s Tommy”
Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Directed by Sam Woodhouse
Choreography by Jaiver Velasco
Musical direction by Steve Gunderson
Starring B. Slade as Tommy
Presented in partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts
Marianne Regan is a member of Actor’s Equity and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). She is a former San Diego president of AFTRA. She began a career in theater in 1976 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa., and spent eight years in New York City traveling each summer to another summer stock location. She moved to San Diego in 1985 and performed at the North Coast Repertory Theater and for Edyth Pirazzini’s Mission Playhouse.