Chicago Theatre Review
The Pinball Wizard’s a Winner
The Who’s Tommy – Paramount Arts Center
Jim Corti has directed yet another winning production and a cause for celebration, Aurora’s magnificently beautiful Paramount Theatre. Based upon The Who’s groundbreaking fourth studio album, released back in 1969, the double-disc concept record was eventually fleshed out as a 1975 film musical and, 21 years later, became a hit Broadway show. Essentially one of the first rock operas ever written, and featuring classic songs like “See Me, Feel Me,” “Pinball Wizard” and “Tommy, Can You Hear Me,” British composer and guitarist Pete Townshend tells the story of the title character, a “deaf, dumb and blind kid,” who unbelievably becomes a virtuoso at pinball and eventually overcomes his physical and emotional afflictions to evolve into a cult hero.
The rock musical, which won six Tony Awards in 1993, is about a young man’s remarkable journey from innocence to wisdom. Overcoming tragedy, unthinkable abuse and inhumane medical and spiritual treatment, Tommy Walker eventually becomes a new spiritual leader for his time. It should be mentioned that, in spite of a superb, 28-member cast that includes four juvenile actor/singers, this show is not suitable for young children. Although Corti’s production tones down the PG material, the show includes scenes of murder, torture and drug use as well as physical, sexual and emotional abuse and bullying. At times, the story can be difficult to watch, but this impressive production is theatrically eye-boggling and overwhelms musically.
Besides Jim Corti’s excellent casting and direction, which primarily brings the show downstage right into the lap of the audience, he’s honored Peter Townshend and Des McAnuff’s script by presenting the rock musical with very few cuts. Musically directed and conducted by area wunderkind, Tom Vendafreddo, the mostly electronic Paramount pit orchestra soars up to the back row of the balcony. Choreographer Brock Clawson creates the most physically astounding, dynamically expressive choreography ever seen on that stage. And once again reinventing the power of excellent, creative moving visuals, Mike Tutaj has designed some stunning projections that dazzle the audience and take the musical to a Broadway level of excellence. Theresa Ham’s beautiful costumes bring the audience from WWII through to the swinging 60’s and 70’s. Her palate of black and white patterns and solids in Act II are particularly striking. While scenic designer Linda Buchanan and lighting designer Greg Hoffmann have collaborated to create a spectacular, eye-popping, rock concert environment for this production, complete with moving, ever-changing thresholds of light, the action is mostly performed on a single plane. It might’ve been more visually interesting if the height of the Paramount stage had been utilized to create multiple playing levels.
And if those weren’t reasons enough for making the trek out to Aurora, the individual and cumulative talents of this awesome cast will seal the deal. Two words: Devin DeSantis. This young Chicago actor continues to grow, mature and impress with every role he undertakes. His vocals absolutely astound. As Tommy, this production totally belongs to this extraordinarily talented actor/singer. He’s joined by talented younger actors Peyton Owen and Ricky Falbo as Tommy at ages four and ten. They both bring professional stage presence and accomplished musical talent to their emotionally wrenching performances.
David Schlumpf, Jeff Award-winner for “Sweet Smell of Success,” delivers another remarkable performance as Captain Walker, and much-welcome area newcomer Hillary Marren makes a ravishing Mrs. Walker. Liam Quealy, who’s become one of Chicago’s most accomplished and reliable triple-threats, amazes as the sadistic Cousin Kevin, and Jake Klinkhammer’s smarmy, perverted, alcoholic Uncle Ernie also impresses, his flashing Polaroid ever at his side. Last seen as Joanne in Paramount’s “Rent,” Meghan Murphy excites vocally as the Gypsy with her rendition of “Acid Queen.” And there seldom has been an ensemble of singers and dancers more deserving of an award for their remarkable skill and talent than this group of young people. They’re simply unmatched.
Jim Corti has wisely de-emphasized this show’s many tragic and uncomfortable moments while creating a production that focuses more on the spiritual and emotional journey of a young boy into manhood. Paramount elevates Pete Townshend’s seldom-produced musical classic into a contemporary masterwork that features a huge company of professional artists offering stunning performances, breathtaking technical support and a score that will send audiences humming and dancing into the street afterwards. This Pinball Wizard is truly a winner!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 14-February 15 by Paramount Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-896-6666 or by going to www.ParamountAurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.