By Barry Reszel
A masterfully electric production of “The Who”‘s seldom-staged rock opera, Tommy, puts enough wattage in Paramount Theatre’s cottage to sufficiently heat this Chicagoland winter.
Director Jim Corti illustrates once more his adept touch as a nuanced storyteller and showman first-class. Most importantly, as Paramount’s artistic director, the man knows how to hire, too.
Corti’s intuitive casting for this show begins in the pit, where über-talented Tom Vendafreddo leads his band through “The Who”‘s original 1969 album’s orchestrations. If educators must first, last and always be about students, any production of Tommy must first, last and always be about the music. Corti’s Tommy, the conductor who also plays keyboards, makes sure this is so.
Deserved kudos go to Kory Danielson, keyboard and assistant conductor; Scott Stevenson, keyboard; Dave Saenger and Scott Tipping, guitars; Joel Benway, horn; Bob Lizik, electric bass; and Tom Hipskind, drumset.
The accolades don’t end in the pit.
Jaw-droppingly skilled Devin DeSantis as deaf, dumb and blind teenage Tommy and narrator/alter ego to his younger self (played by talented youngsters Peyton Owen and Ricky Falbo) leads another terribly gifted Paramount ensemble through 37 non-stop pieces of music in just a tad over two hours. DeSantis, seen recently as John the Baptist/Judas in Marriott Theatre’s Godspell and Dr. Frankenstein in Drury Lane’s Young Frankenstein, commands the stage with his presence and the room with his impeccable singing voice.
Brock Clawson‘s choreography is creative and executed with precision. Theresa Ham’s costumes are fantastic. Linda Buchanan‘s sets are bright and interesting; they are particularly effective in the second act when using more of Paramount’s generous stage height. Greg Hofmann‘s lighting design is simply brilliant; but to fully appreciate why, no patron, under any circumstance, should leave at intermission.
That said, for all the deserved plaudits to this production, the sorry thing is, some patrons did leave Tommy at intermission, even on star-studded, cast-and-crew-friendly, opening night. “Who” takes the blame.
There’s good reason the 1969 rock opera wasn’t staged on Broadway until 1993 and never enjoyed an American tour or revival since. It’s a sick tale of a child’s dealing-by-not-dealing with parental neglect, psychological abuse, familial pedophilia and bullying. When a 17-year-old theatre-major-to-be and patron of 100-plus professional shows whispers, “I don’t know know if I’d let my kid be in this show,” it’s telltale.
The full plot synopsis, production history and song list may be read here.
Indeed, Hillary Marren and David Schlumpf are perfectly detached post-WWII parents to young Tommy. Jake Klinkhammer delivers preying Uncle Ernie with eerie exactness. Liam Quealy is wonderfully wretched as Cousin Kevin
To be fair, unlike, say, Jekyll & Hyde, there is a redemptive epilogue. But it’s a nauseatingly meandering path to the terse message that healing happens in the normalcy of seeing, hearing, touching and feeling. That, delivered in 10 minutes after nearly two hours of uneasy abuse, feels inadequate. Add that it comes wrapped in unabashed forgiveness to the criminals noted above…well, it just doesn’t feel right to laugh off child abuse and sing “Kumbaya” with pedophiles.
That said, Paramount’s Tommy is a first-rate production of nobody’s favorite musical, save for, probably, fanatics of “The Who.”
“Tommy” performs through Feb. 15 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora. Evening shows are performed Wed. through Sun. Matinees are performed Wed., Sat. and Sun. Tickets ($41 to $54) and information are available at www.ParamountAurora.com, by calling (630) 896-6666 or visiting the Paramount box office Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 2 hours prior to evening performances.