That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball! The lyrics to the iconic “Pinball Wizard” lead the Act I Finale to The Who’s Tommy in Open Circle Theatre’s triumphant return to production. After several years’ hiatus, the theatre company— whose vision is to advance the idea that disability can enhance the artistic experience, inspire aesthetic innovation, and influence a community to become accessible for all— marks their return during National Disability Employment Awareness Month by bringing their production of Tommy to the Silver Spring Black Box Theater. Directed by Suzanne Richard with Musical Direction by Jack Null and ASL Master Coordination by Neil (Michael) Sprouse, this evocative musical is the perfect vehicle to herald their reboot as a company.
Conceptually, Director Suzanne Richard’s approach to the show is quite impressive. Flawlessly weaving in ASL interpreting performers, Richard creates a mirror cast within the production. Given the symbolism and overall importance of the mirror in Tommy’s world, this visual construct is deeply moving and emotionally sound. This is most readily experienced with Mrs. Walker’s Mirror Self (played adeptly by Michelle Mary Schaefer), and ASL Cousin Kevin (Aarron Loggins.) Though there are multiple moments throughout the performance where American Sign Language (ASL) is featured, often with the full cast during choreographed routines, both Schaefer and Loggins carry powerfully representative echoes during “Cousin Kevin”— for Loggins— and any solo which features Mrs. Walker (Autumn Seavey Hicks.)
Costume Designer Jesse Shipley furthers Richard’s concept by creating almost identical outfits for these silent-character counterparts, only utilizing far brighter and more richly saturated hues to really draw the visual focus to them. Shipley’s choice of yellow for Tommy— in all of his incarnations, be it the Age 10 or Age 14 version (played by Chloe Mitchiner and Kira Mitchiner respectively), the voice of Tommy (Will Hayes) or his actual representation. Other highlights of Shipley’s costuming include the seedy outfit featured on Uncle Ernie, and the overall modern appeal to the rest of the ensemble.
Projection Designer Arnulfo Moreno has further enhanced the overall concept that Richard has put forth by truly modernizing what’s being done with the projections. The downfall to this is the placement of the live band up on steel scaffolding blocking a good portion of the projected background. This is only problematic in some places and doesn’t too terribly detract on the whole from the experience. Moreno’s finest work is featured during “Fiddle About”; this gruesome projection work hits the gut hard with the message it displays. Musical Director Jake Null balances the pit well, preventing any major overplays from happening despite the edgy rocker nature of the score.
With a talented ensemble, comprised of over a dozen individuals, Null’s musical spirit and Jen Bevan’s musical staging and choreography land strong on the stage. Bevan, who also features as a soloist in “Pinball Wizard”, has a practiced nature for staging large quantities of people in small spaces in ways that best serve the music and the overall verve of the show’s trajectory. Bevan’s intense voice is a critical component to driving “Pinball Wizard” as the powerful Act I Finale. Other vocal sensations include Maggie Leigh Walker as Acid Queen in her solo “The Acid Queen” and Sally Simpson (Molly Janiga) in her self-titled solo.
Mikey Cafarelli, as creepy Uncle Ernie, may have but one brief solo— “Fiddle About” but his robust operatic vocals carry all the untoward intent required to make the song feel seedy and unsavory. Carl Williams, as Cousin Kevin, is equally blessed with talented vocal prowess, and although his song “Cousin Kevin” is dodgy, it’s not nearly as base and cruel as Cafarelli’s solo. Watching the interplay between Williams and his ASL counterpart, Aarron Loggins during this number and several others is quite impressive. Autumn Seavey Hicks and Malcolm Lee as Mrs. Walker and Captain Walker respectively are also vocally impressive, both delivering strong sounds during their solo and duet numbers.
Hicks, who is reflected often by Michelle Mary Schaefer, credited as ‘girl in the mirror’ shares some sensational moments with Schafer in duet where Hicks’ voice and Schaefer’s expressive face deliver heart-pounding emotional sensations, particularly during “I Believe My Own Eyes” and “Smash The Mirror.” This duality of character, wherein Schaefer exists within the confines of the mirror’s reflection is a profoundly symbolic statement, which articulates with finesse the mission statement of the company. The same aesthetic resounds in the interplay between Tommy (Russell Harvard) and Narrator (Will Hayes) who plays as the singing voice of Tommy.
While Hayes has a striking vocal prowess, especially during “I’m Free”, it’s experience is enhanced tenfold by Harvard’s emotional expressions. Their duets of song and sign are sensational and send shivers up the spine, exposing the emotional earnestness with which the story of Tommy unfolds. Harvard spends a good bit of the show being vaguely blank and expressionless, his dedicated commitment to this rising above and beyond the standards of every day existence on the stage. “I’m Free” and it’s reprises are the 11 o’clock numbers for both Hayes and Harvard, with the pair delivering them to thunderous applause from the audience.
A remarkable and unique experience that will bring about a thorough appreciation for all of the great work Open Circle Theatre is doing in the theatrical community, The Who’s Tommy is a wonderful theatre experience and should not be missed.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
The Who’s Tommy plays through November 20, 2016 with Open Circle Theatre at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater— 8641 Colesville Road in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available at the door or in advance online.