Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
July 29, 2011
Two amazing journeys of the mind. Two young people dead to the world: Tommy – deaf , dumb and blind after witnessing a family murder. And Sleeping Beauty – out cold for nearly 900 years.
They express their agony and their innermost thoughts, while their anguished parents – and assorted, sometimes sordid, others – try desperately to get inside their heads. All the while, we get treated to some mind-blowing songs, terrifically sung. Two splendid collaborations, two galvanic productions.
“The Who’s Tommy” has come a long way from the 1969 rock opera concept album and 1992 La Jolla Playhouse musical version that went on to Broadway acclaim. Gone is the cult leader and religious icon. This Tommy is a self-obsessed, mirror-gazing American Idol. The San Diego Repertory Theatre’s second felicitous co-production with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts is definitely a “Tommy” for the 21st century.
It’s a tame, tamped down, kid-friendly “Tommy.” The sex, drugs and violence are gone; even the rock ‘n’ roll is attenuated. On opening night, the first act was under-amped and the sound mix was off. It wasn’t until the killer “Pinball Wizard” that the guitars – four of ‘ em ! – cranked it up and took over. There was more of a rock feeling in Act 2, but there was also overly embellished, “Idol”-style singing from the megawatt B. Slade in the title role.
Under Sam Woodhouse’s direction, the energy is dynamic. The costumes, lighting, choreography, 17—piece band, vocal arrangements and singing are sensational, but there’s an emotional layer missing here, an absent sense of danger, heart and redemption.
All of that comes through in spades at the La Jolla Playhouse, in “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” the ravishing co-production with New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre. In this magically modernized fairy tale re-telling, the Princess is brought to a sleep disorders clinic by her grief-stricken father. Immediately, the other residents begin to share Rose’s dream-world, which inspires jaw-dropping lighting and projection effects.
The eclectic, intriguing score, with music by Brendan Milburn and lyrics by Valerie Vigoda , is by far their most layered, complex effort, aided by Rachel Sheinkin’s book and Rebecca Taichman’s direction. The jazz, blues, pop, rock and heartful ballads are sung in roof-rattling voices and gorgeous harmonies. Torn between her adoring, overprotective father, wonderfully played by Bob Stillman , and engaging Bryce Ryness as the narcoleptic orderly who kisses her into consciousness but can barely keep himself awake, former San Diegan Aspen Vincent is a knockout Princess, a beautiful, feather-light sprite with an irresistible presence and a powerhouse voice.
Beneath the music, the message of both shows is the same: Be yourself. Be real. Stay awake and don’t sleepwalk through life. Get free of your fairy tales and fantasies. Remember, as Tommy says, ‘Freedom tastes of reality.’
“ The Who ’s Tommy” runs through August 14 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
“Sleeping Beauty Wakes ” continues through August 21, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©2011 PAT LAUNER