A backstage drama developed last week at the performance of the awkwardly titled "The Who's Tommy" at Lyric at the Plaza: Shortly before the curtain, Jon Fletcher, who was to play Tommy, took ill "? "stomach flu," announced artistic director Nick Corley. Fletcher's understudy, Christopher Rice, had never rehearsed the show in the title role.
Lyric produced "Tommy" in conjunction with the University of Oklahoma's A. Max Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre. Rice, and other actors in "Tommy" supporting roles, are OU musical-theater majors. Giving it the old college try, Lyric's deciders opted to go on with the show with Rice performing the lead role for the first time. Adjustments were made, and the curtain was delayed 15 minutes while the audience waited in the lobby.
Unlike audiences at those spectacles where a motorcycle stuntman tries to jump 20 passenger buses, theater audiences do not want to see an actor go down in a fiery crash. They have too much of themselves invested in the show. They want to say sometime in the future, while watching Rice pick up his first Tony Award, "Yeah, I was there the night Chris Rice stepped in at the last minute and played Tommy without a single rehearsal" "? a feat that becomes grander with every retelling.
Rice did a fine job. In fact, my favorite parts of the show were two late scenes when he had to go briefly on book. He handled it with panache, and was rewarded with a rousing ovation from the audience and cast at curtain calls.
"Tommy" is The Who's 1969 album, which some call the first "rock opera." The stage version is almost completely sung-through, and as can happen in pop/rock musicals, many of the lyrics in this production are swallowed up by clangorous guitars and synthesizers. The music washes over the audience, but not much of it sticks.
The story begins in 1940, and soon thereafter, 4-year-old Tommy (Alexandria Grable) sees his father murder his mother's lover "? justifiable homicide, the court rules. The incident causes the boy to lapse into a condition that might be called walking catatonia. The medical and ecclesiastical professions can't help Tommy, so his father (Matt Farnsworth) tries the mystical/chemical.
But 10-year-old Tommy (Heather Newby) possesses an extraordinary talent, and as anyone who listened to AM radio in 1969 knows "that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball." When the scales finally fall from Tommy's eyes, he sees how cold and cruel this world can be.
The production is played on Amanda Foust's minimalist, but functional set that consists mainly of white panels, which serve as blank canvases for Wendall K. Harrington's projections. The set also serves as a background for Jeffrey Meek's color wheel of costumes, which come in tangerine, magenta, egg-yolk yellow, seaweed green, eggplant, hot pink, and black and white.
Corley's direction moves apace, aided and abetted by Amy Reynolds-Reed's choreography.