Pictured: Tom Vendafreddo (center) and the ensemble. Photo by Tim Scott.
By Bec Pennington
The opening night of The Who’s TOMMY in The MTH Theater at Crown Center had an air of excitement in the lobby. The audience was eager to see this one — regular theater-goers enthusiastic about this company’s take on the classic.
TOMMY is the story of a boy, born after “The War” who witnesses a terrible tragedy and is plunged into emotional shock that makes him deaf, dumb, and blind. His parents spend years trying to treat or cure him, and he endures abuse at the hands of others because he can’t cry out or fight back, but one of his abusers takes him to an arcade and realizes the child is gifted at, of all things, pinball. He becomes a celebrity and experiences transformation. Overwhelmed by it all, he hopes to lead people to gratitude for their own opportunities and relationships in life.
While the original setting is post-WWI, most adaptations recognize that the musical reflects the two decades after WWII much better, and the song in which Mrs. Walker is looking forward to the year 1921 is usually changed to ‘51 instead. With simple but obviously mid-century costuming and even a pre-production speech to explain this concept, MTH inexplicably left the lyrics untouched. This is where the imperfection ends, however.
TOMMY is set in MTH’s Main Stage, a black box style theater designed with audience seating surrounding three-quarters of the space and the performing area thrust into the center, a semi-circle of microphones the main focus. TOMMY’s Rock Band sits upstage colorfully lit in a hazy fog, visibly enjoying playing Pete Townshend’s rocking score.
I have to admit I was intrigued, if not skeptical about a full musical taking place in this intimate theater, but the show’s design is nothing short of brilliant. Director Sarah Crawford, along with the rest of the production team, achieved perhaps the best bang for the budget I have seen in years — all through clever choreography, minimal props & costumes, perfect lighting, and balanced sound. MTH pared the show down to its essentials and delivered them flawlessly.
Even the simple costumes are worth noting. All players wore different black ensembles (except Tommy in white), silhouettes and accessories styled to match their changing characters and chronology, changes made onstage, seamlessly, starting with Mrs. Walker magically losing her baby bump during someone else’s vocal solo and remaining steady throughout the show. It was all very clever and expertly timed.
But what makes this TOMMY really shine is its cast. Tommy is played in turn by Delilah Rose Pellow, Maddox Bane, and Tom Vendafreddo, all of whom carry the main character easily. The ensemble has incredible energy and talent, fantastically strong vocals, and are obviously well rehearsed. Daniel Verschelden especially wows with his amazing range. The confidence shared by all the cast is appropriate — at one point an ensemble member even whipps out a harmonica and goes to town. The energy brought by everyone could carry a space twice the size, but it doesn’t overwhelm the audience at hand. And then Shelby Floyd arrives on scene — lady’s got pipes! She belts out the best version of “Acid Queen” I’ve ever heard, bringing the house down.
This one had me smiling all the way home. If you get a chance to run over to Crown Center, TOMMY runs through June 25th. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and I guarantee it is worth every penny.