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See Me, Hear Me—I Said, Hear Me
By Ralph Hammann

The Who’s Tommy
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.

Pickin’ and grinnin’: (clockwise from top) Coullet, Ehlinger, Bessett and Murfitt in Cowgirls.

Country Pleasures

Conceived 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.

—James Yeara

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