With The Who's Tommy the latest "in concert" offering from Street Theatre Company-following in the wake of the company's presentations of Chess and Ragtime-artistic director Cathy Street shows an impressive grasp of what shows work in that context, both for her cast and crew and for audiences. While Chess may have generated more buzz among the social network chatterati, and Ragtime might have tugged more adeptly on the heartstrings of its audience, The Who's Tommy in Concert shines through its theatricality and musicianship, the story brought to life through Street's artistic vision and her terrific eye for casting.
Led by an ensemble that includes the always superb Michael Holder in the titular role of Tommy, the "deaf, dumb and blind kid" who becomes a "pinball wizard," setting off widespread public acclaim and becoming a cause celebre in the process, Tommy in Concert also features the inspired pairing of Holly Shepherd and Ben Van Diepen as Mrs. Walker and Captain Walker. Despite the age difference of the two actors-not to mention their youthfulness in relation to Holder's casting as their onstage son-Shepherd and Van Diepen are believably cast as young lovers who marry in the early days of World War II only to find that first blush of romantic dreaminess devolve into the nightmarish consequences that set the show's plot in motion.
To be certain, in a concert version of Tommy, the plot synopsis in the show's program (albeit printed in six-point type that would render lacemaking nuns blind) is an essential guide to what's going on. Without that synopsis, it's rather difficult to follow the action unless you are familiar with Tommy and its evolution from a two-disc album in 1969, to the phantasmagorical 1975 film version that starred The Who's Roger Daltrey as Tommy and Ann-Margret as Mrs. Walker (with Tina Turner as The Acid Queen), and finally to the stage version that debuted in La Jolla in 1992 prior to its Broadway run that starred Michael Cerveris in the title role.
The story is set in England-it's 1940 when we first meet the Walkers, with the final scenes taking place in the early 1960s-but due to the lack of British accents (save for Shepherd's which, truth be told, I didn't notice until it was pointed out to me) it could, in fact, be set anywhere despite references to the prime minister and "a hundred quid." And the plot's timeline is essentially inconsequential (interestingly enough, Tommy originally was set in the post-World War I period we now associate with the denizens of Downton Abbey), thanks to Street's choice to stage Tommy in Concert as an example of the steampunk genre-an offshoot, if you will, of science fiction, fantasy and alternate historical fiction, here exemplified primarily through Lynda Cameron Bayer's gorgeous costuming for the ensemble and Steven Steele's scenic design (he also provides the excellent lighting design).
Clearly, those artistic choices have little, if any, impact on the show's music-instead, they afford Street and company some artistic license to play around with-which remains as infectious (lookout for the earworm) and as mesmerizingly entertaining as it was way back when.
While Holder's performance is winningly guileless and expectedly focused (his command of the stage is nothing short of impressive, his voice stellar-particularly in "I'm Free"), perhaps most surprising are the performances of the two young actors who portray Tommy at ages four and ten. Rowan McCoy, the four-year-old version, gives a startling and convincing performance, showing off a stage presence much older actors must certainly envy. She's as cute as a button, to be sure, but the kid also has some serious acting chops. Dalton Tilghman plays the 10-year-old Tommy with the resolute bearing of an experienced actor-he previously played Edgar, the little boy in Ragtime in Concert, to critical acclaim (which means I thought he was pretty nifty)-and together, he, McCoy and Holder present a truly seamless theatrical vision of Tommy, the boy who is rendered deaf, mute and blind by the vision of his mother's lover being murdered by his father.