Pinball Wizard, Acid Queen return in pioneering rock opera

JJ Parkey as pinball wizard Tommy (center) revels in the adulation of his dancing fans while Griffin Giannone, as his 10-year-old self, racks up a score at the pinball machine in The Who’s Tommy (photo by Heather Wack)
JJ Parkey as pinball wizard Tommy (center) revels in the adulation of his dancing fans while Griffin Giannone, as his 10-year-old self, racks up a score at the pinball machine in The Who’s Tommy (photo by Heather Wack)

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.

Advertisements

Stage version of Addams Family is more lovable than creepy

Stars of The Addams Family include (from left) Amanda Bruton (Grandma), Jennifer Fogarty (Wednesday), Dan Olson (Lurch), Jesse Sharp (Gomez), KeLeen Snowgren (Morticia), Shaun Rice (Uncle Fester) and Jeremy Todd Shinder (Pugsley). Note: Alternate actors play Lurch and Pugsley in the current touring production. (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Stars of The Addams Family include (from left) Amanda Bruton (Grandma), Jennifer Fogarty (Wednesday), Dan Olson (Lurch), Jesse Sharp (Gomez), KeLeen Snowgren (Morticia), Shaun Rice (Uncle Fester) and Jeremy Todd Shinder (Pugsley). Note: Alternate actors play Lurch and Pugsley in the current touring production. (photo by Carol Rosegg)

By Richard Ades

The musical comedy now unfolding at the Palace is called The Addams Family, but it bears only a superficial resemblance to its macabre source material.

Fans of Charles Addams’s New Yorker cartoons or the 1960s TV series will recognize the basic characters. They look much as they did on TV and in subsequent movies, except that daughter Wednesday (Jennifer Fogarty) has grown into a romance-minded young woman. Book authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) have even retained touches of the old Addams quirkiness, such as the family’s fondness for torture devices and graveyards.

Beneath these surface aberrations, though, these stage Addamses are surprisingly normal.

The thin plot hinges on Wednesday’s plan to introduce Ohio-bred boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Bryan Welnicki) to the family by inviting him and his parents (Mark Poppleton and Blair Anderson) to dinner. Confiding in her father, Gomez (Jesse Sharp), Wednesday reveals that she and Lucas have already agreed to marry, but she asks Gomez not to tell her mother, Morticia (KeLeen Snowgren). Her fear is that Morticia will try to sabotage the relationship if she learns of the engagement before she’s gotten to know the Beinekes.

Gomez protests that he’s never lied to his wife, but he reluctantly agrees to keep the secret from Morticia until that night’s dinner party. And on that brief bit of deception rests the entire storyline.

Musicals probably have been built on slimmer ideas, though I can’t think of any offhand. But the oddest thing about The Addams Family is how conventional the characters are beneath their gothic exteriors.

Gomez is like any devoted husband and father who’s trying to keep peace in the household. Wednesday is like any embarrassed teenager who thinks her family is weird (except that her family really is weird). Her brother, Pugsley (Connor Barth), may be tortured by his big sister literally rather than figuratively, but he loves her just the same.

Perhaps the most Addams-like of the characters are the herb-gathering Grandma (Amanda Bruton) and grunting butler, Lurch (Ryan Jacob Wood). The least Addams-like is Uncle Fester (Shaun Rice), who has metamorphosed from an anti-social, blunderbuss-brandishing curmudgeon into a romantic who enlists the souls of his dead ancestors in the cause of promoting Wednesday and Lucas’s love.

The result of all the changes made to the original characters—and of the subsequent changes made in response to the show’s mixed success on Broadway in 2010-11—is a warmhearted, rather conventional musical that’s designed to appeal to everyone but hardcore Addams fans.

Its pluses include Andrew Lippa’s songs, which are sometimes pretty (Wednesday and Pugsley’s Pulled) and sometimes catchy (the hummable Full Disclosure). The six-piece band is synthesizer-dominated and sounds it, but the players’ voices range from serviceable to great. Fogarty (Wednesday) and Anderson (Alice) are especially strong.

Working under Jerry Zaks’s direction, the cast is as funny as the material allows it to be. Jonathan Ritter’s choreography is especially enjoyable when it includes both living and non-living participants, as it does in Act 2’s Tango de Amor. The set and costumes (designed by original directors Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with later set tweaks by James Kronzer) are appropriately gothic.

Amid all the singing and dancing, The Addams Family seeks to purvey the message that you have to be true to yourself. Considering the liberties it takes with its creepy characters, some might see that as a bit ironic.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Addams Family through April 13 at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Homage to silent performer is a bit too talkative

Sarah Ware as Bip in Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of There Is No Silence (photo by Matt Hazard)
Sarah Ware as Bip in Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of There Is No Silence (photo by Matt Hazard)

By Richard Ades

The title There Is No Silence is surprisingly accurate. Even though Ohio State’s original work is inspired by the life of renowned mime artist Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), there’s a whole lot of talking going on.

The show is only minutes old when we’re introduced to Trixie (Jane Elliott), a mime-in-training who can’t seem to keep her mouth shut. At times, she asks for suggestions from the viewers—for example, what should be on the other end of the invisible rope she’s about to pull. (“Me!” an enthusiastic little girl called from the audience on opening night.)

Trixie, who later reappears as a revised character named Marbles, is a lively and personable presence, but she’s too verbose to be an effective mime. It’s not clear why she’s given such a prominent role in an homage to the French master of silence.

However, the show’s main problem is its lack of focus, which is likely due to the number of hands involved in its creation. Conceived and directed by former Marceau student Jeanine Thompson, it also was “devised” by the MFA Acting Cohort and written by Jennifer Schlueter and Max D. Glenn. Add the technological input of the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, and it’s easy to understand why the production goes off in so many directions.

One minute it comes across as a classroom lecture, dutifully ticking off the now-obscure performers who inspired Marceau. At other times, it allows performers to expound at length about their own connections to the artist or his craft.

At still other times, the show delves into Marceau’s challenging relationships with his daughter, Aurelia (Camille Bullock), and collaborator/wife, Anne Sicco (Melonie Mazibuko). In fact, a fierce argument between Cousteau and Sicco ends Act 1—an odd choice, since viewers don’t know enough about the wife to care about the fight’s outcome.

Much more enlightening is an Act 2 historical section that details Marceau’s anti-Nazi activities during World War II. But the show is the most engrossing when its performers honor Marceau’s craft by showing off their own silent grace.

The most graceful of all is Sarah Ware, who captures the essence of Marceau’s stage alter ego, Bip. Another wordless (but musically accompanied) highlight is a dance performed by Aaron Michael Lopez, one of four men who take turns playing Marceau. (The others are Sifiso Mazibuko, Brent Ries and Patrick Wiabel.)

The ACCAD-aided sections, such as one in which the electronically produced outlines of Marceau and a live performer move in perfect unison, are technologically impressive. But our appreciation of Marceau is bolstered more by the segments that honor the mime in the most appropriate way: by showing just how expressive the silent human body can be.

Ohio State Theatre will present There Is No Silence through April 13 in the Thurber Theatre, Drake Performance Center, 1849 Cannon Drive. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20; $18 for faculty, staff, alumni association members and senior citizens; $15 for students and children. 614-292-2295 or theatre.osu.edu.