Me, Hear Me—I Said, Hear Me
Music and lyrics by Pete
Townshend, book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, additional
music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon, directed
by Jared Coseglia
Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge,
Mass., through Aug. 2
Of the comments that one may make about this Tommy,
one is indisputable: It rocks with aggressive self-assurance.
This, courtesy of an impressive company of young talent who
clearly love what they are doing onstage and backstage at
the Unicorn Theatre. One can barely look away from the stage
for fear of missing any of the visual and aural barrages being
hurled from the stage—the effect is like a much-extended version
of the final scene in Marat/Sade where the insane asylum
inmates threaten to attack the audience. Indeed, there is
enough explosive action here to fuel a Jerry Bruckheimer film.
Director Jared Coseglia has the audience looking into a mirror,
one that is, in accordance with one of the show’s songs, repeatedly
smashed. Coseglia’s other concept involves setting the play
in a seemingly rural redneck town in post-Vietnam America.
Both conceits work well to give this version a disturbing
edge and new look. There is also Coseglia’s personal conceit,
which involves sitting in the audience as the worst kind of
cheerleader and laughing incessantly at the humor or cleverness
of his direction (the irksome effect was like that of a yapping
Pomeranian—the dog, not the people).
While Coseglia has some fine directorial flourishes and ideas,
he hasn’t delivered a fully coherent production. The most
glaring reason for this is that too many of the songs’ lyrics
are incomprehensible. Sometimes they are drowned out by the
six-piece band directed by Ken Clark; often the actors haven’t
the necessary articulation. It’s a major problem, one that
Coseglia must take the blame for, especially given his credit
(with Nick Borisjuk) for sound design.
For anyone who missed the Who’s rock-opera phenomenon in the
early ’70s, Tommy, the eponymous hero of the opera, is a child
(spookily well-played by Alexander Hill) who retreats into
his own world (ostensibly deaf, dumb and blind) after witnessing
his father kill his mother’s (in this production) lesbian
lover, an act that his parents blame on Tommy. He grows up
the victim of more abuse: He is sodomized by his Uncle Ernie
(an exceedingly creepy Dalane Mason), beaten by his cousin
and abandoned by his mother and father. Eventually he becomes
a pinball wizard and superstar who brutally responds to love
when a young girl offers him it. That violence begets violence
is about as deep as it gets in this harsh and explicit production,
but it needn’t go much deeper. This is rock, the province
of raw emotion, not intellectual analysis.
The real backstage star of this production is its choreographer,
Julian Alexander Barnett, who also appears on stage as the
teenage Tommy in the show’s most arresting performance. Barnett’s
choreography is continually energetic and the visual equal
to the pounding rock score, no small task given that the show
is virtually all music. The abandon that he has elicited from
the entire cast is galvanizing.
Barnett’s performance of the post-traumatic Tommy is riveting—at
once funny, engaging and poignant. Whether it is in the minimalism
of the haunted and innocent eyes or the exuberant outbursts
of freeing dance, Barnett compels and amazes. His Tommy is
a rich cipher, but not one who is unapproachable. He is a
sinned-against naïf, but not one who begs pity.
Onstage continuously as the adult Tommy, Cory Grant sells
his songs, what we can hear of them, and brings great sweat-drenched
energy and conviction to the role.
Of the non-Tommys, Stephanie Girard—wonderful last year in
BTF’s Brownstone—continues to impress, as she shows
considerable range and a good deal of natural beauty. As Mrs.
Walker, Tommy’s distant mother, Girard conveys seductiveness
counterpoised with coldness, and nicely establishes a love/hate
relationship with her son. She is also the best singer in
the lot and manages to surmount the problems of body microphones
in the battle for equality with an amplified band.
Less effective is James Barry’s Captain Walker. Barry plays
the whole thing with a self-absorbed and disingenuous intensity
that lacks levels and becomes boring in its sameness. Barry’s
threat is all on the surface; he might take a lesson from
Oliver Reed, who conveyed genuine menace in Ken Russell’s
1975 film version of Tommy.
Yoshinori Tanokura’s sexy and inventive costumes are of enormous
help in arresting our attention and helping to tell the story
that is frequently reduced to something of a dumb show. So
too, Paul Hudson’s scenic design, which loosens a few of the
sacred wallboards in the Unicorn, and Brian Patrick Byrne’s
pulsating lighting. Together, Byrne and Hudson create a mean
pinball game that may be emblematic of the entire show. For
some, this production will be all smoke and strobes and little
content; for others, it will suffice.
and grinnin’: (clockwise from top) Coullet, Ehlinger,
Bessett and Murfitt in Cowgirls.
by Mary Murfitt, book by Betsy Howie, music and lyrics by
Mary Murfitt, original story development by Kevin Kean Murphy,
directed and choreographed by Eleanor Reissa
Capital Repertory Theatre,
through Aug. 10
The musical Cowgirls is best summed up in the moment
Jo Carlson (Rhonda Coullet), beleaguered owner of Hiram Hall,
“a country-western saloon in Rexford, Kansas,” tutors the
three classical musicians of the Coghill Trio (Mary Ehlinger,
Mimi Bessett, Mary Murfitt) on the ethos of country music:
“Slide into it like you’re slidin’ into a hot tub, not like
you’re jumpin’ into a cold creek.” Capital Repertory Theatre’s
latest summer- subscriber special sizzles with the music.
When the Coghill Trio sing and play, Cowgirls is foot-stomping
good. When Hiram Hall’s waitstaff, Mo (Amy Jordan) and Mickey
(Julie Rowe, who’s like the cream filling of a Hostess cupcake
only twice as white, twice as sweet, and twice as trashy),
try to break into the act, Cowgirls is a hootenanny
hoot. When owner Jo twangs a Loretta Lynn-like solo lament,
the schmaltzy charm brings a tear to even the most jaded cynic’s
eye. The musicality of Cowgirls is like easing into
a bubbling hot tub, cold Coors Light in one hand, your sweetie
on the other, a barbecued chicken leg in your mouth, the sun
setting in the West, and God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost humming
along in harmony with Murfitt’s songs. When these six women
strum and sing, Cowgirls swings.
Murfitt’s original tunes are rich and varied, displaying a
stunning range that tasks the cast and makes the audience
sit up and keep the ever-changing beat. The slight book sets
up a battle between the Coghill Trio, whose classical-music
tour is collapsing, and the Hiram Hall folks, who are frantic
with banker-about-to- foreclose-on-the-mortgage desperation.
The trio’s transformation from classically trained musicians
to country singing outfit is the stuff of many stops and starts,
pops and . . . sound. This makes for some fun, with the contrast
between the trio’s sterling Beethoven sonata Pathetique,
Opus 13, and such smarmy country-fried fare as “Songs
My Mama Sang.” All the clichés of both genres are hit dead-center,
repeatedly. If the book and the acting (which is like being
pushed into a shallow cold stream) are missing the honesty
and edge of previous summer musical specials like Always
. . . Patsy Cline, Unforgettable: The Nat King Cole
Story, or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,
Murfitt’s music makes up for it.
This is especially true after intermission, when the tunes
come fast and furious to the finale, a medley rehearsed during
the previous two hours. Highlights include the Act II riser
“Don’t Call Me Trailer Trash” (“I live in a mo-beel home”
Mickey and Mo twang, fringe flinging to and fro, and bare
midriffs winking come-hither welcomes) and Murfitt’s violin,
mandolin and guitar playing. Murfitt’s musicianship would
be called “virtuoso” elsewhere, but in the honky-tonk world
of Hiram Hall, it’s “just damned good.” Cowgirls lives
up to its toe-tapping, knees-bouncing, hand-clapping billing,
and other than a round of Bud Light on the house, country
doesn’t get much better than Cowgirls.