Zach Theatre has always been at their best when working with rock musicals. “Love Janis”, “Spring Awakening”, and the stunning “Next to Normal” have more than proven that, and they continue to excel here with their production of “Tommy”, a shockingly original piece based on the seminal concept album/rock opera by The Who. Bringing together a team of Broadway professionals, Austin stage icons, and truly impressive newcomers, Zach has created what could be their best work to date.
To find the right cast for this production, Zach has pulled from a pool of all manner of performers, from Austin musical veterans, to opera stars, to rock artists, but for their main role, they went above and beyond, pulling from the very stages of New York. Michael Valentine, the young man tasked with taking on the daunting performance that is Tommy, brings such a rich professionalism to the role, which is not surprising since he’s graced the stages of the New York in such big name productions as “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal”. With a crystal clear voice, explosive stage presence, and an unending stream of charisma, Valentine puts on to his shoulders quite a bit of work, since he has to carry both the blind, deaf and dumb Tommy who lives in the first two thirds of the play, and the rock-star Tommy who lurks at the end of the play. The way he makes both halves believable, and, even moreso, marries the two to make it a believable whole, is laud-worthy. Splitting the role of Tommy is Will Sendera, who more than carries his own as young Tommy, bringing a maturity to the role that’s truly surprising for such a young performer, and brings a amazing voice to the role as well, culminating in a moment of vocal prowess that almost made me fall out of my chair in shock.
Tommy’s family is made up of various members of Austin theatre royalty, who each bring out their best to truly create a lively environment for the character to call home. Tommy marks a long-awaited return to rock musicals for Meredith McCall, whose voice is custom-made for them, as was evident in Zach’s “Next to Normal”, which may stand as McCall’s, and Zach’s, best musical performance. Here, she doesn’t have quite as much room to breathe, but when the play lets her take center stage, she takes it on with gusto. Working alongside her is Matthew Redden, with whom she showed a quick chemistry in 2012s “White Christmas”, which only more solidifies itself here. The most remarkable duo in the play, however, may very well be Paul Sanchez and Timothy Ellis Riley, who play his uncle and cousin, respectively. Sanchez is a well-known opera star in Austin, and he brings all his vocal gymnastics to the performance as Uncle Ernie, blowing audiences away with his many small numbers throughout. Ellis may not quite match Sanchez in vocal pyrotechnics, but he more than makes up for it with his dancing prowess, performing feats of daring-do that are shocking to behold.
Though the actors carry their weight on stage, we mustn’t forget some of the true rock stars of Zach’s “Tommy”: the production designers. Playing off director Dave Steakley’s “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired vision, lighting designer Jason Amato and scene designer Cliff Simon work together to create a vision of light-up archways, roll-away pinball machines, and pull apart living rooms which together as an awe-inspiring mindfreak of a set, plunging audiences into the wild world of “Tommy” the moment the curtain’s pulled back. Building on top of this is the costume work by the award-winning Susan Branch Towne, whose work evokes the idea of each “Alice in Wonderland” character, while at the same time keeping the costumes bold, modern, and strikingly original. All this is greatly aided by Robin Lewis’s brilliant choreography, which helps the keep the action moving at a blistering, jaw-dropping pace, showing us visions of motion unheard of in most productions, which are only intensified by having skilled dancers, such as Timothy Ellis Riley and Gabriel “Wicket” Jaochico, in the cast.
Exploding with imagination, and leaking energy at the seams, “Tommy” may be the boldest and most original production to appear on Zach stages. From top to bottom, the performers, production team, and director are all working at the top of their game to present one of the biggest theatrical surprises of the year. Fans of the Who’s original album will be pleased as punch, and those who could not care less for the band will still find plenty to love, especially as the pure adventure of the show practically tears the theatre apart. Those who do not enjoy audience interaction should be trigger-warned, but for everyone else, grab a glow stick and get ready to rock with this truly stunning and unique work.
“Tommy” plays at Zach’s Scott Theatre’s Topfer Theatre through August 24. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit zachtheatre.org.