Review: ‘The Who’s Tommy’ at MVT

Nov. 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

REVIEW BY MINDY PENNYBACKER / mpennybacker@staradvertiser.com

In its wild, thundering and ultimately uplifting revival of the 1993 Broadway musical descended from the Who’s 1969 rock opera concept album, “Tommy,” Manoa Valley Theatre delivers a must-see — and hear, and feel — “The Who’s Tommy” for our times.

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‘THE WHO’S TOMMY’

Presented by Manoa Valley Theatre

» Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Rd.
» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 13 (performances are sold out through Nov. 29, although limited seats have become available for tonight’s show)
» Cost: $20-$39 before Dec. 1; 13+
» Info: (808) 988-6131, www.manoavalleytheatre.com
» Note: MVT and Pint + Jigger will host a pre-show Pints, Pupus and Pinball Party at 6 p.m. Dec. 4; $100 tickets include craft beer and whiskey tasting, pupu and “Tommy” performance

The moment 4-year-old Tommy is struck deaf, dumb and blind in this deeply affecting production, a wave of sympathy for both the child and his parents unites the audience. In director Rob Duval’s sensitive interpretation, we recognize PTSD and autism, which weren’t part of the culture when principal author Pete Townshend conceived the characters, music and book.

Shell shock was recognized, however: In 1969 the world was wracked by the war in Vietnam; and projected photographs from World War II, part of the impeccably realized set, audiovisual and lighting design, remind us that the Who were children in a devastated postwar Britain.

Although the parents ensure their shocked child’s complete shutdown by insisting that he hasn’t seen or heard a thing when his father, a returned prisoner of war, shoots his mother’s boyfriend dead, these are not the chilly, abusive parents of most adaptations. Instead, a convincingly concerned Zachary Linnert, as Mr. Walker, and a warm, full-voiced Carly Tobias as his wife are frustrated, exhausted, yet loving and devoted to each other and their son. What parent today can’t relate?

That isn’t to say you won’t get your 1960s nostalgia fix, whether you experienced the decade firsthand or via fashion, music and the media.

First and foremost, the play stays on track thanks to the six-piece band of rockers that keeps a rousing beat, led by musical director Melina Lillios in high white vinyl boots to die for.

Another major part of the production’s seductive charm is its mods-and-rockers costumes and dance numbers, which summon the edgy cool of period TV’s “The Avengers” and “The Prisoner.” The feral performance of James Mares as Tommy’s sadistic Cousin Kevin evokes the young Malcolm MacDowell of “A Clockwork Orange,” and Timothy Jeffryes’ witty portrayal of “your wicked Uncle Ernie,” a pedophile, would do Monty Python proud.

The heart of the show, of course, is Tommy, the boy who becomes a pinball celebrity of rock star caliber because the one thing he can feel is vibrations. As the grown Tommy, Kyle Malis carries the show. A strong singer and expressive dancer with a quick eye that telegraphs his character’s mercurial emotions, he is alternately funny, sad, conflicted and, finally, liberated, without ever coming across as sanctimonious.

Each child Tommy is played by alternating actors, every other night; this reviewer saw Ryder Goto as the 4-year-old and Andrew Bell as Tommy at 10. Both young actors held up with dignity and flexibility through Tommy’s maltreatment by gang members and doctors.

And when they sang along with the grown Tommy, facing him through a mirror, their pure childish voices conveyed a spiritual healing that carried through to the play’s last scene.

As the Gypsy, hired to provide the 10-year-old with sexual healing, Alison L.B. Maldonado, reprising her role in MVT’s first, Hawaii premiere production of “Tommy” in 1996, is in beautiful, mesmerizing voice.

If the song delivery, overall, was perhaps a bit too Broadway-belting than rock die-hards would wish, and if the dancing seemed, at times, oddly hesitant and constrained, these are opening-night quibbles that might resolve with time.

With its uniformedly talented and sprightly cast and crew, this production is a fitting celebration and tribute to a play and a group that, since “My Generation” aired in 1965 with Roger Daltry stammering “Hope I die before I get old,” has aged more than gracefully. Manoa Valley Theatre has made “Tommy” a play for every generation to enjoy.

Manoa Valley Theatre presents “The Who’s Tommy,” book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff; music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon; directed by Rob Duval; musical direction by Melina Lillios; set design by DeAnne Kennedy; lighting design by Kelsey Peacock; choreography by Katherine L. Jones; audiovisual design by Walid Alhamdy. With Kyle Malis (Tommy), Carly Tobias (Mrs. Walker), Zachary Linnert (Captain Walker), Timothy Jeffryes (Uncle Ernie), Ryder Goto (Tommy, age 4, alternating with Brooklyn Van Howard), Andrew Bell (Tommy, age 10, alternating with Jackson Saunders), James Mares (Cousin Kevin) and Alison Maldonado (the Gypsy).

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