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.

Singing the post-operative blues

Hedwig (JJ Parkey, left) and Yitzhak (Ruthie Stephens) trade notes in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (photo by Heather Wack)
Hedwig (JJ Parkey, left) and Yitzhak (Ruthie Stephens) trade notes in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

I was a little concerned when I learned JJ Parkey was going to play the title role in Short North Stage’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

When Parkey played the Emcee in Cabaret at the same venue last year, he depicted the entertainer as pure evil. Since no one is pure anything, that approach made the iconic character less interesting than he might have been.

Still, Parkey seemed talented, and I consoled myself with the thought that actors don’t always have final say over their performances. Sometimes directors dictate a certain approach in order to support their vision of the work. I have personal experience with this because, way back in my college/community-theater days, a director forced me to play a soft-spoken and intuitive character as a loudmouthed jerk in order to support his misguided interpretation of the play.

Maybe that’s what was going on with Cabaret, I thought. Or maybe not. It’s a moot point, really, because Parkey plays the transgendered Hedwig with all the verve and sensitivity that the role demands. It’s a bravura performance.

In case you’re one of the few people who are encountering John Cameron Mitchell’s cult musical for the first time (Short North’s production is my fourth, counting the 2001 movie), it’s about an East German lad who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery in order to marry his way to American citizenship. Unfortunately, the surgery is botched, leaving the former Hansel with a vestige—an “angry inch,” as it were—of his former genitalia where a brand-new vagina was supposed to be.

We actually meet Hedwig, as she’s now known, when she takes the stage along with her rock band, the Angry Inch. In the course of the concert, we hear her sad story, including her unhappy affair with a now-popular musician who’s simultaneously performing up the street. We also meet Yitzhak (a cross-dressing Ruthie Stephens), a sullen band member who clearly has his own rocky history with Hedwig.

Written with both wit and attitude by Mitchell, the melodrama unfolds in the midst of enjoyable ballads and punk-rock tunes by Stephen Trask. Parkey and the golden-throated Stephens do them all justice, as does the onstage band led by P. Tim Valentine.

Director/choreographer Edward Carignan wraps it all up in a production that knows when to let loose and when to stop and smell the rancor. Carignan likewise designed the wigs and gaudy costumes that help to define the title character, as do the clever video images that appear at opportune moments on two backdrop screens.

Technical director Robert Kuhn and lighting designer Amanda Ackers also deserve mention for their contributions to a show that, along with the recent Passing Strange, bolsters Short North Stage’s reputation as a purveyor of first-rate musical entertainment.

Short North Stage will present Hedwig and the Angry Inch through June 22 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.