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A Breathless 'Tommy' Rings Few Bells

Some weaknesses in the ensemble numbers prevent the complex rock opera from gaining the momentum it demands.


SANTA ANA — There's something pitch-perfect about college students taking on "Tommy." The rock opera was created by guys not much older (the Who, primarily leader Pete Townshend) in the late 1960s and is fueled by youthful exuberance and excess.

With that in mind, one has to respect Rancho Santiago College for its staging, which runs through Sunday. Under Beth Hansen's direction, the mostly student cast throws itself into "Tommy" with enthusiasm approaching giddiness. This isn't "South Pacific," or even "Evita," and the cast knows it.

But in its most recent incarnation, "Tommy" also isn't a pushover. Townshend joined Des McAnuff in the early '90s to retool the piece for a more mainstream audience, adding narrative passages and making everything less rambling. The new "Tommy" premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1992 and become a Broadway hit the following year.

The reworking left "Tommy" more accessible but also more complex. There are a dizzying number of set changes and scene shifts, and if the ensemble work isn't near-perfect, the seams can glare as loudly as an off-key guitar riff.

The seams showed on Friday, opening night. This production is no disaster, not by a longshot, but the weaknesses in the ensemble numbers (especially unsure dancing and spotty singing) were keeping this "Tommy" from gaining the breathless momentum it requires.

The show has high points, especially Eric Potter as the adult Tommy. Potter, who has some professional experience, has a clear, pleasing voice and the onstage confidence needed for the character, who, after suffering tragedy and abuse, retreats into catatonia.


Tommy's liberating emergence as "pinball wizard" and Christ-like redeemer needs mature acting, and Potter is up to the challenge. His rendition of the signature number, "I'm Free," is effective.

Townshend and McAnuff's version filled out other key characters, such as Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and Tommy's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Walker. Through them, we get to see exactly why the boy needed to tune out.

Tommy's torture starts young (he is played at 4 by Jeffrey Robert Cramer and at 10 by Samara Taylor) with pedophile Ernie and sadist Kevin. Brandon Crane's Kevin is far creepier. Crane (who played Doug Porter on TV's "The Wonder Years") turns Kevin into an unrepentant monster and makes it clear what hell Tommy is living through. Crane practically sneers and salivates through "Cousin Kevin," the character's ode to himself. By comparison, Steve Vautrin's Ernie is almost lovable. You just don't catch enough malice under his wimpy smile, even during the stomach-churning "Fiddle About."


Ashlee Nichole Lewis as the mother and Geoffrey Going as the dad have nice voices, but they're too bland to make a big statement. That's not the case with Marie Kelly as the Gypsy, a.k.a. the Acid Queen. Her inspiration clearly is Tina Turner, who played the role in Ken Russell's movie of "Tommy" in 1975, and it's a juicy impression.

The show veers from World War II to more contemporary times. To keep it streamlined, designer Bob Mumm uses lightweight facades on wheels in to suggest such places as the Walker home and a mental hospital. The look is OK but distractingly insubstantial. Donna Dickens' varied costumes, however, are professional-looking, especially for a campus show.


* "Tommy," Phillips Hall Theatre, Rancho Santiago College, 17th and Bristol streets, Santa Ana. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8 and $10. (714) 564-5661. Running time: 2 hours.

Ashlee Nichole Lewis: Mrs. Walker

Geoffrey Going: Mr. Walker

Steve Vautrin: Uncle Ernie

Joseph Chee: Minister/Judge

Jim Lodin: Lover

Jeffrey Robert Cramer: Tommy at 4

Samara Taylor: Tommy at 10

Eric Potter: Tommy grown-up

Brandon Crane: Cousin Kevin

Marie Kelly: the Gypsy

Erin Davis: Sally Simpson

A Rancho Santiago College production of a musical by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff (with additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon), directed by Beth Hansen. Choreography by DJ Gray. Sets: Bob Mumm. Costumes: Donna Mae Dickens. Lighting: D. Silvio Volonte. Sound: Justus Matthews. Makeup: Barbara Matthews. Band leader: Rob Blaney. Stage manager: Jane Hilary.

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