George Harter, the founder of Musical Theater Heritage, made a bold assertion in his remarks before a preview of the company’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” on Friday.
“I think that Pete Townshend is as good a composer as George Gershwin and Cole Porter,” said Harter.
The revelatory rendering of Townshend’s 1969 rock opera made Harter’s audacious claim seem reasonable. The work is familiar to classic rock aficionados and to theatergoers who have seen a version of the Tony Award-winning musical that debuted on Broadway in 1993.
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Tommy, a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” in post-war England endures a series of traumas before emerging as a messianic figure with an assemblage of cultish followers. Directed by Sarah Crawford, the Musical Theater Heritage interpretation divulges new nuances in the story and in the music conceived by Townshend and his three bandmates in the Who.
Crawford said before that show that “we like to take large stage musicals and strip them down.” Nothing like the gaudy 1975 film version of “Tommy,” the humble staging allowed the impressive acting and outstanding voices of the cast to create a unique and wholly effective version of the musical.
Tom Vendafreddo’s depiction of Tommy evokes the sassy but sensitive pop star Justin Bieber rather than the hyper-masculine Roger Daltrey of the Who. Initially jarring, Vendafreddo’s approach allows Tommy to convey skepticism, penitence and revulsion in ways that add surprising depth to the character.
The only thing Vendafreddo gets wrong is pinball. As the 10-year-old Tommy, Maddox Bane is much better at mimicking play of the game. Delilah Rose Pellow, cast as the chillingly blank-faced four-year-old Tommy, is also excellent.
With bare feet and a mountainous voice, Shelby Floyd almost steals the show by channeling Janis Joplin in her brief turn as the Acid Queen. Yet the character of Tommy’s mother dominates the production. Expertly played by Leah Swank-Miller, she’s alternately loving, beleaguered and negligent.
The agile eight-piece band — replete with French horn — is amplified at a reasonable volume. The choreography is less consistent. The ensemble moves with synchronized menace during the horrifying “Fiddle About,” but mawkish dancing accompanies the absurdist anthem “Pinball Wizard.”
On the darkly cathartic “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the penultimate song that exemplifies Townshend’s enduring brilliance, Tommy is told by his disillusioned acolytes that they intend to forget him. Audiences at Musical Theater Heritage, however, are likely to remember the production for a long time.
Musical Theater Heritage’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” runs through June 25.
“The Who’s Tommy” continues through June 25 at Musical Theater Heritage in Crown Center. See mthkc.org or call 816-221-6987.