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The Who's Tommy

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“Tommy, can you see me? Tommy, can you hear me?” San Diego Repertory Theatre responds in the affirmative, with its uneven, yet ultimately satisfying production of The Who’s rock opera about a seriously affected adolescent cum pinball prodigy. This is the REP’s second co-production with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, which contributed some seriously talented young actors and musicians to this incarnation. Thanks to the music itself,  to musical director Steve Gunderson’s orchestra, and the showmanship of the electric guitar quartet, both enthusiastically conducted by Tamara Paige, as well as to Trevor Norton’s  dazzling lighting design and Tom Jones’ skillful sound effects, the show rockets back to the wild and wacky 70’s. Those in the audience fortunate enough to have experienced the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll take a tuneful trip down memory lane. Those not old enough to have worn hip hugger pants come along for the ride.

It is an uneasy journey, largely because comparing the way -we-were to the way-they-interpret is an unequal balance, and the weight always hangs with the former. Since The Who’s album release in 1969, Tommy’s featured tunes, written by Pete Townshend, have been recognizable elements of the rock canon. Reinterpretation, no matter how well intentioned, is a perilous trip.

Ken Russell co-wrote and directed the 1975 movie, starring Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed, pulling out whatever Hollywood stops might have existed for the first rock opera. Reviewers were gaga about the effects, even back then when hallucinogenic beans enjoyed broad distribution.

Des McAnuff co-wrote the book with Townshend and directed the 1992 La Jolla Playhouse extravaganza, which shot off to Broadway the following year and won a Tony before commencing a national tour.

As director of the current production, Sam Woodhouse takes on a mammoth task, especially in light of the opera’s colossal history. He and his ambitious cast deserve accolades for the courage and the moxie to pull it off, albeit on a much less grand scale. Some of the lingering challenges can be met, others will simply have to depend on an audience with more enthusiasm than memory. The Lyceum is a rather small venue, and the concentration of space gives rise to cramped choreography and odd staging. Choreographer Javier Velasco rejects bold choices in favor of easy moves, and the result on opening night was a rather wooden chorus line galloping to keep the pace.  Perhaps, as the show grows into itself and its staging, the dancers and the composition will find a compatible and comfortable camaraderie.

Ditto with the featured performer, B. Slade, the actor formerly known as Tonex, whose entrance in Scene 3’s “Amazing Journey” and his work in the rest of the first act, lacks the flash and passion that he brings up, full out, in Act 2. Holding back, saving the larynx, whatever. Give it up, B. and come to the party ready to rock it from the get-go. Oh, and lose the front flip in the last scene. The Who’s phantasmagoric lead singer, Roger Daltrey, did execute a few flips on a surrealistic beach in the movie for his version of “I’m Free,” but the trick is an unnecessary distraction onstage.

This musical at this venue is a tough gig, for sure. Giving some game gusto in full vocal vigor  are Carey Rebecca Brown as Mrs. Walker, Zachary Harrison as her earnest husband, Captain Walker, and Joseph Almohaya in several roles that include Mrs. W’s lover. Brown and Harrison make a significant, often heartrending, case for the daily, unrelenting stresses and hopes that mark moments and lives of parents of autistic and brain-injured children. Anise Ritchie as the Gypsy shows off a powerful set of vocal chords, but screams more than blasts out the high notes. Louis Pardo pulls off  the quirky, then empathic, but totally weird Cousin Kevin in bizarre style . Megan Barrow’s Sally Simpson is a bit fluffy, but the character is not very interesting, anyway. Victor Hernandez brings the alcoholic pedophile Uncle Ernie to creepy life in “Fiddle About,” illuminating a parental nightmare that was not in common consciousness decades ago.

Sociological explication was not the intent of the original opera, however. In his famous 1968 interview with Jann Wenner of the Rolling Stone, Townshend shared his concept for a “package” called "Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy."

But what it's really all about is the fact that because the boy is "D, D & B," he's seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That's really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play.

That concept eventually became the boy character in The Who’s Tommy. The boy’s story is that at age four, seeing his father kill his mother’s lover and responding to his parents’ demands to pretend it did not happen, Tommy retreats from seeing, hearing, and feeling. Ethan Estrada plays tot Tommy as rigid as a marionette, and Davina Van Dusen portrays Tommy at ten as a willowy rag doll. Their roles deserve more essence and less confusion of character. Yet, both child actors come to amazing life in Act Two’s “Go to the Mirror, Boy,” brandishing some surprisingly robust and mature vocals that threaten to steal the scene. Van Dusen gets her due in the finale, where an inspired revolving mirror set piece reflects the child within Tommy’s freed soul.

As in this entire production, the mirror is a metaphor, connecting those who engage with its image to a time and a message that only a good blast of rock ‘n’ roll a la The Who can deliver.

The Who’s Tommy continues on San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum stage in downtown Horton Plaza through August 14.

Performances are Sun., Tues &Weds At 7 pm; Thurs-Sat. at 8 pm; Sat & Sun matinees at 2 pm.

Tickets are $37-$57; Student Discount $18, and discounts available for groups, seniors and military.

Reservations: 619-544-1000 or

Pete Townshend quote obtained from:



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.