Thursday night, on Pete Townshend’s 66th birthday, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre presented the first of what will be a 12-show, three weekend run of “Tommy,” the first-ever rock opera from Townshend and the Who.
The MET’s “Tommy” starts just weeks after a two-week, eight-show run of “A Tribute to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ ” at the Living Room. Both projects share some admirable traits, starting with the almost audacious ambition of trying to squeeze a leviathan rock show into a community theater’s space.
Yet both managed to succeed, with considerable aplomb.
As impressive as the execution of “The Wall” was, the presentation of “Tommy” is even larger and more daunting, comprising a cast of 29 actors and a seven-piece band that performed 42 musical numbers over the course of 20 scenes and two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
The story of “Tommy” is well-known: a young boy growing up in Britain after WWII sees his father, presumed dead in the war, return home and murder his mother’s boyfriend. Told by his parents that he neither saw nor heard anything, he becomes nearly catatonic, unable to speak, hear or see. He suffers torment at the hands of his uncle, a pedophile, and his cousin, a bully. He finds redemption in pinball, at which he mysteriously excels, then is cured when his mother smashes the mirror that had become his sole point of solace. That turns him into a cult hero, until he is eventually rejected by his followers.
The MET show, directed by Karen Paisley, was rendered with plenty of enthusiasm and ingenuity. The theater is a spartan space, but the most is made of it. The set features some metal scaffolding, a second-story platform and a background screen upon which images are projected throughout the show.
Other than that, it’s all furniture, props and an array of costumes fitting each period of the story. Set changes are part of the presentation: Cast members, as if choreographed, wheel, push and ferry things on and off stage between scenes with impressive efficiency.
The cast is led by Samn Wright, who narrates and then plays the eldest Tommy, and Nathan Granner and Katie Gilchrist, who play his parents, Capt. and Mrs. Walker. Chris Gleason plays the hard-drinking Uncle Ernie; Michael Dragen is Kevin, Tommy’s cousin.
This inaugural show suffered some glitches and mishaps, most having to do with sound and remote microphones. Several times, voices got buried in the music. Sometimes it appeared to be because of a microphone problem and/or insufficient projection from the singers, especially a few of the younger cast members. Granner and Gilchrist are both powerful, evocative vocalists and were in top form and audible all night, so it didn’t appear to be a systemic issue of sound mix or acoustics.
But those issues were relatively superficial (and easily remedied). One other minor complaint: The band is hidden behind a curtain. That didn’t affect the sound profoundly, but it disembodies the music from its performers, which I found to be a bit of a distraction. Maybe I’m just too accustomed to seeing what the band is doing.
For a preview show, this one was rewarding and enjoyable. The music, of course, was grand and at its best when the “lads and lassies,” as they are called, are dancing and letting loose with a show-stopping number, like “Pinball Wizard” or “We’re Not Going to Take It.”
But most impressive was how so many people mustered the talent, savvy and energy to pack such a large and ambitious show into such an intimate, bare-bones setting and do it justice.
“The Who’s Tommy” continues tonight and runs Thursdays through Sundays through June 5 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Show times are 7:30 p.m., except Sundays, which are 2 p.m. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org. Tickets are $30-$35 for adults (depending on the day), $20 for students.