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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Tommy — New Cavern Productions

untitled (79)The first thing I look for in the inaugural production of a theater company is the will to do good work.

New Cavern Productions, the brainchild of founders who are still working toward college degrees, more than proves its mettle, and its desire for excellence, with its bright, vivacious staging of The Who’s “Tommy.”

Director Steven Burke and his tirelessly energetic cast exude earnestness and eagerness to please while realizing Peter Townshend’s seminal rock opera on the stage at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon. Care is given to characterization, and Burke’s production flows briskly while efficiently telling the story of a child who is so traumatized at witnessing a killing he suppresses all conscious sensual response until he is brought out of his torpor to become what he has been lacking, a sensation.

Burke’s approach is direct. He doesn’t try to embellish Tommy’s story or go for big effects. Any commentary beyond Townshend’s text is projected on the back wall of the New Cavern set where we see everything from footage of World War II images to medical statistics and X-ray results, presumably Tommy’s. The videos are well-conceived and well-produced by Burke, who uses them to augment and illustrate. They never intrude or steal focus from the stage.

While individual characters show nuance, particularly Chris Infantino as Cousin Kevin and Zach Latino as Tommy’s father, Mr. Walker, Burke keeps the progress of the show straightforward and in line with Townshend’s intentions. His cast is uniformly talented, singing with expression and gusto and dancing with spirit.

Chloe Sierka’s choreography becomes extra important because Burke chooses to use Townshend’s entire score. That means there are a lot of instrumental sequences that need filling. Burke uses the opportunity to show Tommy’s characters going about their everyday paces, leading busy lives between the scenes in which they appear. This idea is particularly effective at the beginning of the musical when Burke has Latino’s Mr. Walker go through his day which includes enlisting for military service and receiving orders to serve overseas even though his wife, well played by Catherine Logan, is about to have a baby. One of the more moving scenes in Burke’s production depicts Latino’s agitation when he realizes he cannot get leave to be present at the birth of his son.

Movement tends to be constant but settles down some when extended scenes are presented.

Even though “Tommy” has been staged in theaters almost since the time it was released as a double LP in 1969, it remains a challenge as a dramatic piece. As with the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, “Tommy” was designed as a recording, and though it has a linear story, it concentrates more on the music and less on specific events the way a play would. Lyrics provide exposition, but they too are meant to be presentational, songs rather than dialogue, expressions rather than concrete actions. Burke’s job, like any director’s, is to take a work that is written to be listened to and figure out a way to make it visual and theatrically dramatic.

He chooses wisely to stick to the basics, both of Tommy’s story and the theatrical telling of it.

Wherever and whenever he can, Burke opts for the realistic. The Walker living room is a comfortable British parlor, The pinball machine that figures so prominently in “Tommy” is in a typical teenage hangout where Tommy is surrounded by his cousin Kevin’s crowd that teases and taunts him until he dazzles them with his pinball skill. Because of the everyday settings, Jason Armstrong’s Tommy looks as if he is treated like a normal boy who spends time with his parents and then is sent out to play with kids his own age, albeit in the care of Kevin who gets kicks from sadistically torturing Tommy for his own amusement. After all, Tommy, being deaf, dumb, and blind, allegedly cannot see or hear who is hurting him, let alone burst into language to complain.

Burke downplays Kevin’s mistreatment, having Infantino’s Kevin mime more pain than he inflicts. He also takes some of the sting from Uncle Ernie physically abusing Tommy by having David Schwartz look feverish and wiggle fingers rather than touch or even act as if he’s molesting J.D. Triolo as the 10-year-old Tommy, the middle Tommy of a trio. Burke opts to let taste trump realism, and his scruples are appreciated. The audience gets the idea without rude acts having to be committed.

Triolo gets the brunt of any physical business that Tommy must endure. He is pushed and poked unmercifully by Kevin’s friends. To the young actor’s credit, he literally rolls with the punches, showing no reaction, as the sense-numbed Tommy cannot.

Triolo is lifted, carried, stuffed into a trash can, and made to go through a battery of abuse, but in a display of admirable discipline, he never shows emotion or looks for help.

So in spite of his total ability to shut himself from the world, Tommy is an integral part of it. He doesn’t sit home like a damaged lump. Burke shows Tommy’s life to be active. When he is not with Kevin’s friends, he is being examined by the latest doctor who has promised his parents he or she can cure him. You see the frustration of Mr. and Mrs. Walker, especially Mr. Walker, who takes Tommy to some interesting places in an attempt to reboot his senses.

Burke’s “Tommy” works best in typical, unremarkable settings. Scenes in the pinball parlor, the Walkers’ living room, or a doctor’s consulting office work better than large production numbers like the one involving the Acid Queen.

Simplicity is Burke’s best friend. When scenes get too complicated or complex, his “Tommy” doesn’t seem as tight or consistent. Also, while all actors give dimension to their characters, some portrayals are not overly deep. The characters are defined well but remain archetypes — mother, father, troubled son, untrustworthy relatives, ineffective professionals — so keeping things basic is the best path to successfully putting “Tommy” on stage. The sincerity of the New Cavern cast, and their effort to entertain so thoroughly, is what makes the production so enjoyable. The cast looks as if it’s having such a good time bringing this show to you, their exuberance becomes contagious, and you have a good time too. The cast also shows the goods to be triple threats. The singing is glorious, especially Jason Armstrong’s as the adult Tommy. Burke found a great chorus of voices. Sierko’s dances are fast and muscular. The “Tommy” company does them with blinding precision that adds extra appeal to a bright production.

As mentioned, the role of Tommy is split into three, a four-year Tommy, a 10-year-old Tommy and a young adult Tommy. The three actors who played these parts for New Cavern — Armstrong, Triolo, and Catherine Carter wearing what amounts to a Beatles wig — acquitted themselves well and provided special moments.

Armstrong is a Tommy that immediately wins your heart. While remaining inert in scenes in which he must, Armstrong shows both the yearning and liveliness behind Tommy’s eyes. There’s personality there. In passages that allow him to open Tommy’s character a bit, Armstrong makes you want to guide the character out of his malaise and let him loose as the average looking boy Armstrong appears to be.

When Tommy is freed from his spell following a desperate, temperamental, but transformative act by Mrs. Walker, you want to join Armstrong in celebration because he has made Tommy so lovable and is so enthusiastic about embracing life as a functioning person. Armstrong is not as persuasive in the scenes in which Tommy eschews fame and turns on his fans. He seems too giving to begrudge his admirers, even when they become demanding or cloying. He is better in sequences in which Tommy is spellbound by the pinball machine or lost and waiflike in his loneliness. He also comes back to form when Tommy finds the happy medium between adulation and privacy and is ready to lead those would follow.

Triolo maintains his deadpan so well as the middle Tommy, he almost gives the impression he’s hypnotized. Like Armstrong, Triolo has a strong voice, so when he sings “See me, hear me,” it has an effect. His singing in tandem with Armstrong is special. Triolo comes to life as his character is liberated and is adept in playing the transition from being still to being free.

Catherine Carter, with big eyes and a wan smile, is adorable as the younger Tommy who gets to be animated and fly airplanes around the Walker living room and have other fun until he sees someone get killed, retreats to his mirror, and goes into a 16-year trauma from which no one can shake him. Carter is up to the task when she’s asked to join Armstrong and Triolo in song or appear with them as a team of Tommys. She is also good in the scene in which Tommy’s senses seize and he becomes inert.

Burke cast Mrs. Walker against type. Usually she is portrayed as glamorous on some level. Catherine Logan, in her standard British housewife clothes, looks as ordinary as Mrs. Walker should be. Burke and Logan hit on a plausible, more realistic look that works.

Logan is adept at playing all of the aspects required of Mrs. Walker. Though her infidelity sets up the crime that causes Tommy’s retreat to an interior world, Logan shows appropriate confusion when Mr. Walker returns from the war unexpectedly and finds her with another man, one who believes she is a widow and mentions marrying her.

Whether playing mother, lover, or wife, young woman or middle aged, Logan finds the right note. Most remarkable of all, you can sense her aging even though in real life she is only old enough to play the mother of the four-year-old Tommy. Logan’s is a good, solid performance.

Zach Latino is skilled at showing all Mr. Walker is feeling on his face.

Latino brings strength and resolve to the man who kills the man Tommy regards as his father. You can see him trying to win his son’s affection as he works to cure him of his comatose ways.

Latino is good at reacting and at showing emotions ranging from hope at one more doctor’s claim to frustration Tommy can’t emerge from his frozen state. You can see how much he needs time alone with his wife and how frustrated he gets that Tommy cannot be cured.

One thing Burke may have made clearer is the Walkers’ understanding that the murder Tommy witnessed triggered his emotional and sensual paralysis. They look as if they keep wondering way Tommy is inert, when they have to know the root of their son’s trauma.

Before the Acid Queen makes her entrance, the conservative delicateness Burke used in the scenes with Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin is suspended for a raunchy sequence in which Tommy, played at this point by Triolo who shows bewilderment behind Tommy’s mask, is taken to what amounts to a brothel and is approached by several of the ladies who ply their trade there.

This a creative touch of Burke’s. It combines the Hawker and Acid Queen sequences from the 1969 album and shows the lengths to which Mr. Walker will go when he hears of people, even charlatans, that claim to heal the deaf, dumb, and blind. The parade of prostitutes is a bit scary. You feel concern for Tommy.

The Acid Queen, played by Julia Tyminski, does not seem as threatening in comparison, even though Tyminski does her showy number well and frightens Tommy and his father with her persistence.

Chris Infantino is a great Cousin Kevin. He shows spite and malice well, and he blends in nicely with other kids of his class when he meets with them and introduces them to Tommy, who immediately becomes someone Kevin’s crowd is as eager to abuse as Kevin is.
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Infantino shows a lot of personality in his role. You see the devilishness behind the character and don’t quite buy the Eddie Haskell-like innocence he feigns when the Walkers and other elders are present. Infantino is also a sparkplug in dance numbers. He displays a special exuberance when Kevin’s crowd is on their feet and expressing themselves in movement. This is an actor who creates energy. He should have a good career in musicals.

David Schwartz has to limit himself as Uncle Ernie. He never quite fiddles about with Tommy. Schwartz has stronger scenes when Uncle Ernie tries to cash in on Tommy’s celebrity as a pinballer, and as one who springs to sudden life, by marketing the boy as a commodity.

I liked the coyness Caroline Hitesman displayed as Sally Simpson, the girl with a fan’s crush on the newly animated Tommy.

All in all, Burke did a fine job with “Tommy.” He made the musical theatrical and kept matters on the New Cavern stage lively and clear. I was truly entertained, and I would say the New Cavern audience was as well.

I am told the average age of the “Tommy” company is around 20. This bodes well for the future of local theater, and theater in general. New Cavern’s mission is to nurture the next generation of performers in the Philadelphia area and introduce them to the next generation of audience. “Tommy” shows the zest of the people with whom Burke has chosen to surround himself. The director, who is age 20, and his cast deserve congratulations for putting on a show that was flawlessly played, had a lot of good ideas, and stuck to what matters, the “Tommy” story. If half of this company goes on to pursue work as actors, dancers, singers, and musicians, I look forward to the work they will do.

“Tommy,” alas, is closed. I saw one of the last performances and could not post a review in time to encourage readers to see this show.

Mea culpa. New Cavern Productions, named, I’m guessing, after the Liverpool club where the Beatles cut their teeth as performers, convinced me it has a will to do good work, and I will look forward to its next production and to seeing Chris Infantino, Catherine Logan, Zach Latino, Jason Armstrong, and J.D. Triolo again.

You can learn more about New Cavern Productions by visiting its web site, http://www.newcavern.org.

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