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Austin Arts: Seeing Things

Posted: 2:46 p.m. Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: "The Who's 'Tommy'" at Zach Theatre 

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Review: "The Who's 'Tommy'" at Zach Theatre
Kirk Tuck
"The Who's 'Tommy'" at Zach Theatre

By Cate Blouke

Special to the American-Statesman

A script set in the 1970s that encourages dream sequences and phantasmagoric visions serves up a smorgasbord of opportunities for an ambitious design team.

 “The Who’s Tommy,” playing now through Aug. 24 at Zach  Theater, is the first production in the new Topfer space to really pull out all the technical and design stops available. While the storyline may be difficult to follow (and unquestionably weird), Zach’s production is nevertheless lavish and visually stunning.

The story of a traumatized and abused little boy who finds release via the world in his head and an expertise at pinball, “Tommy” originated as a rock opera album released by The Who in 1969. It was adapted into a film in 1975, but it didn’t evolve into a stage production until the early 1990s.

Approaching this show with the eyes of the completely uninitiated (having never seen the film or listened to the music), I quite delighted in director Dave Steakley’s vision of an “Alice in Wonderland” meets “A Clockwork Orange” narrative overlay playing out across a monochromatic, psychedelic aesthetic – even if I only had a vague sense of what was happening in each scene.

It’s a strange show whether or not you’re already familiar, and the music, although catchy, doesn’t offer a tremendous amount of narrative guidance for us to cling to. There also isn’t any spoken dialogue until the very end, so most of the story arch comes across visually, and Zach’s production may be rather too busy for its own good in that regard.

That being said, the costumes and set design are marvelous to see. Aside from a few bizarre and overly campy pieces (such as Sally Simpson’s unicorn-hair), Susan Branche Towne’s costume design is gorgeous, especially paired with Serret Jensen’s delightful wigs.

Cliff Simon’s set design is excellent – creative and dynamic, allowing for swift and skillful transitions between scenes, and complemented nicely by Jason Amato’s lighting.

In his angst-ridden eyeliner, Michael Valentine (Tommy) comes across as distractingly similar to contemporary pop singer Adam Lambert. For those less familiar with current teeny-bopper musical tastes, though, this might not prove problematic.

The highlight of the show is definitely the ensemble. As the monochromatic minions, the horde of back up singers and dancers deftly navigate Robin Lewis’ choreography and really make the show a delight to watch.

 “The Who’s Tommy” continues through Aug. 24 at Zach  Theater. www.zachtheatre.org

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