By Richard Ades
Check out Short North Stage’s program for The Who’s Tommy, and you’ll see that Edward Carignan is billed as both the director and the choreographer. The jobs aren’t as distinct as you might assume.
There’s dancing, of course, but even when there isn’t, the scenes move along with such speed, precision and complexity that they feel like they’ve been choreographed rather than merely directed. As often happens during Short North Stage musicals, you can’t help sitting up and thinking, “Wow!”
JJ Parkey (formerly seen in the troupe’s Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) stars as the adult version of the English title character, who becomes oblivious to the world after witnessing a shocking event at the age of 4: His father (David Bryant Johnson) returns from World War II and finds his wife (Emily Brockway) having an affair. A struggle ensues, and the lover (Jason Carl Crase) is killed.
Over the years, the helpless Tommy endures mistreatment at the hands of his perverted Uncle Ernie (Ryan Stem) and sadistic Cousin Kevin (Josh Houghton). He also is subjected to his parents’ endless attempts to “cure” him with the help of either science or religion. Nothing can break him out of his mental prison.
Then Tommy stumbles across a pinball machine and proves to have so much innate skill at the game—possibly because his disabilities eliminate all distractions—that he becomes a minor celebrity.
Much more happens, including Tommy’s eventual rise from a minor celebrity to a major one, but the musical reaches its high point when our hero discovers his unexpected talent to the tune of the rousing Act 1 capper, Pinball Wizard. Post-intermission developments never attain this level of emotional power.
Musically speaking, however, it’s a different matter. Composer/lyricist/co-book writer Pete Townshend, with help from bandmates John Entwistle and Keith Moon, has filled the album-based musical with songs that not only advance the plot but are memorable in their own right.
At Thursday’s preview, conductor P. Tim Valentine’s backstage band sometimes overwhelmed the singers and rendered lyrics indecipherable. Hopefully, a few tweaks on the soundboard will improve that situation.
In the leading role, Parkey’s vocals are as strong as ever, though some of his Act 2 dialogue comes off as stilted. Two young brothers, Christian and Griffin Giannone, give poised performances as Tommy at ages 4 and 10, respectively.
The rest of the cast is uniformly good, but Kendra Lynn Lucas stands out for making the most of her showy role as the drug-pushing Acid Queen. Another indelible impression is made by Tommy Batchelor (a former Billy Elliot on Broadway), who emerges from the ensemble to give an amazing balletic dance solo during the Act 2 Underture.
Rob Kuhn’s scenic and lighting designs are complementary, as the set is a series of white doors and panels that goes through chameleonic changes whenever the lighting changes hues. Director Carignan’s costume designs are inventive and colorful.
First appearing as a double album in 1969 and as a stage show in 1992, The Who’s Tommy helped to found the genre of the rock musical. In 2014, its audacity and musical sophistication still inspire awe.
Short North Stage will present The Who’s Tommy through April 27 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.