September 21, 2020

2002-02-14 – The Philadelphia Inquirer

2002 02 14 The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Thu__Feb_14__2002_

THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

Review Theater

Thursday, F ebruary 14, 2002

‘The Who’s Tommy’ at the Merriam

By Douglas J . Keating
INQUIRER THEATER CRITIC
“Are we at a Who concert?” a
guy was overheard remarking

to a buddy at the intermission
of The Who’s Tommy. The
friend answered that that
wouldn’t be the case until July
— when The Who’s latest tour is
scheduled to bring the group to
the TWeeter Center in Camden.

But the implied comparison
wasn’t a stretch. Tommy is
about as close as you can get to
a Who concert without going to
the real thing.

So, the touring production of
the pop opera at the Merriam
Theater is probably more mag-
netic to devotees of The Who —
hugely popular in the 1960s and
’70s and still on the road — than
to the usual musical—theater au-
dience. Even those partial to
the sung-through, pop-tinged
works of Andrew Lloyd Webber
and Frank Wildhorn should find
the loud, relentlessly percus—
sive beat of Tommy’s rock score
if not off-putting, at least musi-
cally uninteresting.

And if it’s a well-told, involv-
ing story you’re looking for,
your reaction to the flimsy, silly
book of this piece may well be a
head-shaking “Whaaat?”

Beginning life as an instantly

Tommy

Music and lyrics by Pete
Townshend, book by Townshend
and Des McAnuff, direction and
choreography by Tony Stevens,
musical direction by Nathan
Hurwitz, settings by Edward Pierce,
costumes by Bobby Pearce,
lighting by Jeffrey S. Koger.

The cast: Michael Seelbach
(Tommy), Jacob Sorken Porter
(young Tommy), Lisa Capps (Mrs.
Walker), Michael Berry (Captain
Walker), Christopher Russo (Uncle
Ernie), Daniel C. Levine (Cousin
Kevin), others.

Playing at: Merriam Theater, 250 S.
Broad St, through Sunday. Tickets
are $34.50 to $62.50. Information:
215-732-5446

popular album in 1969, Tommy
was then performed as a con-
cert opera by The Who, and
turned into a star—studded mov-
ie in 1975. It wasn’t until 1993
that Who songwriter Peter
Townshend and American direc-
tor Des McAnuff turned Tommy
into a musical that had a suc-
cessful run on Broadway and
won five Tony Awards.
Tommy is an English lad,
born during World War II, who
witnesses a killing in his home
and is so traumatized that he

becomes “deaf, dumb and
blind.” Trapped within himself,
the only thing he is able to do is
to play pinball, which he does
far better than anyone else.
(What this amazing ability is
supposed to signify isn’t made
clear, but it does give rise to
“Pinball Wizard,” one of the
show’s most popular songs and
a big stage number.)

As a teenager, Tommy emerg-
es from his trauma through an
event that, though literally daz-
zlingly staged, seems hardly the
miracle it is made out to be.
When word of the cure gets
around, Tommy is worshiped as
a messianic figure by a cadre of
followers, and he must decide if
that is to be his path in life.

There is little credibility or
drama to this tale, partly be-
cause it is only sketchily pre-
sented, but more so because the
beat-pulsing, thunderous music
tends to smother rather than
heighten involvement. In many
songs, the music overpowers
Townshend’s lyrics.

Admittedly, when the words
are discernible, they are hardly
outstanding examples of the lyr-
icist’s art, but still it would be
nice to hear them. In a musical
theater piece you are supposed
to hear them.

If seeing this production hard-
ly turned me into a Tommy fan,
I did feel better disposed to-
ward the show after the second
act. It has musical variety, bet-
ter songs, more impressively
staged scenes, and, with Tom-
my regaining use of his senses,
a human center, which Michael
Seelbach, in the title role, holds
with an appealing mixture of
magnetism and boyish charm.

The young, traumatized Tom-
my is portrayed by 10-year-old
Jacob Sorken Porter, who lives
in Richboro, Bucks County, and
has been on the tour since De-
cember. It’s a largely silent, pas-
sive role in which he is acted
upon more than he is required
to act, but J acob handles it well.

The two Tommys head an
able cast, and the energy of the
production by director and cho-
reographer Tony Stevens match-
es the hard-driving Who music.
The flashy lighting, some of the
technical effects, and the domi-
nating set motif of tall, movable
light towers serve as a remind-
er that this piece of musical
theater was conceived as a rock-
music concert. In many re-
spects it remains one.

Douglas J. Keating's e-mail address
is dkeating@phillynews.com.