Seven Angels Theatre

Amazing Journey

Review of Tommy, Seven Angels Theatre

This year marks fifty years since The Who released their “rock opera” Tommy. Composed primarily by Pete Townshend, the band’s lead guitarist, the album told a story in song over two LPs. The story could feel a bit sketchy at times, but the main gist was that a young boy—Tommy—witnesses an act of violence and suffers a traumatic reaction: he goes deaf, dumb, and blind in defense. But that defense makes him highly vulnerable to certain unsavory characters around him, such as “wicked Uncle Ernie” and cousin Kevin, a bully. As Tommy becomes a teen he astounds the locals with his incredible skill at playing pinball. The eventual realization that his affliction is psychosomatic leads to a “miracle cure,” and he becomes “a sensation” as the spokesman for the value of an inner life cut off from the outer world. He founds a “holiday camp” where kids can experience sensory deprivation and learn to play pinball—until his followers become a mob in revolt and destroy the place, leaving Tommy to sing beseechingly to his own higher self, or to God, or to a guru (Townshend at the time was a follower of Meher Baba, an Avatar of God).

That, more or less, is the story that was translated into a film by Ken Russell in 1975. Then, in the early 1990s, Townshend with Des McAnuff, wrote the Book for a Broadway version. Called The Who’s Tommy, the show won five Tony awards and was nominated for an additional six. In this version, Tommy suffers the same affliction but the ending is much different. Instead it’s as if, at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, the crowd calling for Christ’s crucifixion said “to hell with it” and left, and Pilate, relieved, sent Jesus home to his family and friends. In other words, Jesus Christ Superstar—the other great rock opera of the period—has to stick to the Gospel. The Who’s album isn’t gospel, and this “kinder, gentler” Tommy seems born of the 1990s’ need to remake the forces of the Sixties in its own image. Tommy doesn’t even get to try acid in this version!

Well, that’s all water under the bridge, or show-biz, we might say. Though a reminder of what was may be worthwhile since many more people—who might be vague about who The Who were—are likely to have seen the Townshend/McAnuff version of Tommy, which is now playing at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, directed by Janine Molinari, through May 19.

Tommy (Garrison Carpenter) (photo by Paul Roth)

Tommy (Garrison Carpenter) (photo by Paul Roth)

Even without the “flying by Foy” and the razzle-dazzle set constructions of McAnuff’s staging, Tommy at Seven Angels is still “a sensation.” The roles of Tommy as a 4 year old and a 10 year old are handled by RJ Vercellone and Brendan Reilly, respectively, and they are perfectly cast. Tommy as, at first, a vision seen by young Tommy, and then as the grown-up version, is energetically enacted by Garrison Carpenter, who has the looks and the voice to put across Tommy’s pop godhood. He hangs from scenery and struts and beseeches and takes us on “the amazing journey” with a cockiness that never flags.

Janine Molinari’s choreography is crisp and tight and matches well the propulsive rhythms of Townshend’s score. The songs are some of the songwriter’s best in their deliberate recall of show tunes mixed with the grandeur of hymns. “Pinball Wizard,” the first act closer—and the LP’s hit—is a big rave-up as Tommy seems to have found his calling, his skill praised by others in John-the-Baptist-like terms.

clockwise from top: Tommy (Garrison Carpenter), Mrs. Walker (Jillian Jarrett), 4-year-old Tommy (RJ Vercellone), Captain Walker (Ryan Bauer-Walsh) (photo by Paul Roth)

clockwise from top: Tommy (Garrison Carpenter), Mrs. Walker (Jillian Jarrett), 4-year-old Tommy (RJ Vercellone), Captain Walker (Ryan Bauer-Walsh) (photo by Paul Roth)

As Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Walker, Jillian Jarrett is plaintive when need be but also handles the lyrical “I Believe My Own Eyes,” in duet with Ryan Bauer-Walsh as Captain Walker, her husband, and mounts well the tension of “Smash the Mirror.” Bauer-Walsh has several fine moments where the father’s concern for his estranged son are quite tangible. Adam Ross Glickman brings such vocal skill and character-actor panache to Uncle Ernie it’s a shame there aren’t more songs for him. Likewise Keisha Gilles’ show-stopping Acid Queen: she’s such a presence we might find ourselves hoping she’ll break into character again when she’s onstage briefly as a nurse. As the Specialist, Will Carey has a certain wild-eyed charm singing “Go to the Mirror, Boy,” (one of my favorite tunes in the show).

Speaking of favorite tunes, I’ll never be able to acclimatize myself to what becomes of “Sally Simpson”—originally a wonderfully witty set-piece narrative of a fan’s ill-fated effort to get close to her idol, it becomes a weak gesture at a romantic interest, though Rachel Oremland does Sally full justice. Likewise, in terms of bowdlerization, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” barely recalls the nastiness of the original which makes the show’s conclusion—if you’re paying attention to the words—lacking in drama. That said, the song is a Townshend tour de force and, as it segues seamlessly into “See Me Feel Me”’s kick-out-the-jams climax, the audience—to vary the song’s lyrics—will show excitement on their feet.

And how about that band?  Guitar (Jamie Sherwood), bass (Dan Kraszewski) and drums (Mark Ryan) are the heart-and-soul of The Who’s sound, here fleshed out by conductor Brent C. Mauldin on keyboard 1 and Mark Ceppetelli, associate conductor on keyboard 2, and by Renee Redman on French horn. The voices of the singers—including Jackson Mattek (Cousin Kevin) and many in the ensemble—are all plenty strong enough not to get lost in the rock, and Matt Martin’s sound design is a delight. As are Ethan Henry’s costumes of those bygone years of the post-war look morphing into teddyboys and mods. Daniel Husvar’s scenery comes and goes quickly, making the most of risers and fast changes that make the action move quick and slick.

Colorful, passionate, and still full of the weirdness of an inspired rock savant of the late Sixties, The Who’s Tommy lets Pete Townshend turn the spotlight from the stage to his fans, celebrating “you” (i.e., us) for making his career—and his greatest creation, Tommy—a success. See it, and take a bow.


The Who’s Tommy
Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
Additional music and lyrics by John Entwhistle and Keith Moon
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Directed by Janine Molinari

Choreographer: Janine Molinari; Assistant Director: James Donohue; Music Director: Brent Crawford Mauldin; Assistant Choreographer: Boe Wank; Lighting Design: Doug Harry; Scenic Design: Daniel Husvar; Sound Design: Matt Martin; Costume Design: Ethan Henry; Stage Manager: T. Rick Jones

Cast: Richie Barella, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Will Carey, Garrison Carpenter, Keisha Gilles, Adam Rose Glickman, Jillian Jarrett, Jackson Mattek, Rachel Oremland, Brendan Reilly, RJ Vercellone

Ensemble: Ryan Borgo, Eileen Cannon, Dean Cesari, Bobby Henry, Tony LaLonde, Peter Lambert, Diane Magas, Robert Melendez, Brittany Mulcahy, Patti Paganucci, Kevin L. Scarlett, Madeleine Tommins, Justin Torres

Orchestra: Brent C. Mauldin, conductor/keyboard 1; Mark Ceppetelli, associate conductor/keyboard 2; Dan Pardo and TJ Thompson, associate conductors; Marissa Levy, sub: keyboard 2; Renee Redman, French horn; Cody Halquist, sub; Jamie Sherwood, guitar; Dan Krazewski, bass; Mark Ryan, drums; Kurt Berglund, sub

Seven Angels Theatre
April 25-May 19, 2019

Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Review of Million Dollar Quartet, Seven Angels Theatre

On a night in December, 1956, four of the best known artists to record on Sam Phillips’ Sun records in Memphis, Tennessee, happened to be in the studio at the same time. Carl Perkins was there to record “Matchbox,” which he hoped would be his next hit. Producer Phillips brought in Jerry Lee Lewis, his latest discovery, to play piano on the track. Elvis Presley, whose contract was sold by Phillips to RCA records to help save the Sun label, dropped by with a lady friend to see his old mentor. At some point in the evening, Johnny Cash, who was having a good year on Sun and would stay with the label into 1958, dropped by. Stories differ: Cash was called up by Phillips, Cash was there to see Perkins record. The four—now legendary figures of early rock & roll—sat around together, with Elvis leading them in old gospel tunes they’d all grown up with. A photo of the four together was printed in the local paper and tagged with the title “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Dyanne (Teresa Danskey)

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Dyanne (Teresa Danskey)

From this event, Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott concocted a book for Million Dollar Quartet, now showing at Seven Angels Theatre, directed by Semina De Laurentis. The show is a “jukebox musical”: a collection of well-known songs linked by a loose story. Most of the fun is in the songs themselves and in seeing actor/musicians emulate these four famous entertainers. For fans of the actual performers, the show is like a fantasy fulfilled. These guys put the songs across and that’s all that really matters.

The actual event has the status of one of those occurrences that feels apocryphal even if factual, and that helps the show as well. Sam Phillips, played with an emphatic grasp of his role in all this by Jason Loughlin, addresses the audience and spins the yarn. A number of details from his relations with each singer help create the context for what we see. Daniel Husvar’s set is a great space that looks like Sun, in its drab coloring, and has the thrilling feel of a place where great music can be made.

foreground: Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals); background: Fluke (Mark Ryan), Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), in the booth

foreground: Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals); background: Fluke (Mark Ryan), Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), in the booth

Phillips doubles between emcee for the stage event we’re watching, and narrator/actor in scenes with the singers. Each of the four is introduced by a signature song and little snippet from Phillips’ early interaction with him. In each case, Phillips not only discovered the talent, he helped each find a niche in the burgeoning rock & roll market where originality was a must. But now the bonds are fraying.

Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) has a chip on his shoulder. He got hot with his composition “Blue Suede Shoes,” only to see it “stolen” and performed on the Ed Sullivan Show by Presley. His gripe is that Phillips put more of his limited promotion machinery behind Presley, leaving Perkins in the lurch.

Meanwhile, Phillips is keen to get Cash to sign a contract extension, while Cash (Sky Seals) is embarrassed to be leaving the label for a better deal at Columbia. Presley (Cole), meanwhile, has just come off a humiliating stint in Las Vegas at the behest of his manager Colonel Tom Parker who thinks rock & roll is a flash in the pan and that Elvis needs to court show-biz via Vegas and Hollywood. That strategy provides the kiss of death to Elvis the rocker, and it’s to the show’s credit that it gives us Elvis at a vulnerable crossroads. He’d like to get back to where he once belonged.

Then there’s Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott, the show’s music director). He’s played as the wild card, the upstart, the class clown. Lewis’s facility as a musician eclipses them all, but he still has to prove himself on the charts, as the other three already have.

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott)

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott)

The key question is: does the show rock? And the answer is an emphatic yes. De Laurentis gets performances that aren’t caricatures but are emblematic of each artist. Lewis’ hair and flamboyant piano playing—including flinging his foot onto the keys and playing blindfolded; Cash’s black duds, deep voice and way of brandishing his guitar; Perkins’ rockabilly guitar licks and concentrated, no-nonsense presence; and, of course, Presley’s swaying pelvis, hand gestures, and wavy vocals. Perry Orfanella holds down the stand-up bass as Perkins’ Brother Jay, and Mark Ryan sits in on the drumkit as Fluke, both played as patient session men content to look on as these big names strut their stuff.

Then there’s Teresa Danskey as Dyanne, a singer Presley wants Phillips to hear. Danskey’s torch-song rendering of “Fever” is a highpoint. Her presence suppresses the fact that a female rock & roll singer to equal any of these four men would be some time in coming.

Of the “quartet,” Scott’s Lewis sets out to be the crowd-pleaser and mainly succeeds. Cole’s Presley lets us see that being Elvis is something Presley is still learning. As Cash, Seals’ waistline recalls the later Cash rather than the Sun period. He does a remarkable rendering of “Folsom Prison Blues” but sings elsewhere a bit higher than Cash’s characteristic baritone. As Perkins, Sevelovitz seems genuinely of the era and region; his “Who Do You Love” is a strong number early in the show before the others turn up.

The show brings together some of the best-known songs by these artists, but it also makes room for a few of the gospel tunes they actually sang that night. Act I closes with “I Shall Not Be Moved” and Act II’s finale/encore is “Whole Lotta Shakin’”: Walking the line from songs of inspiration to songs of fornication is key to these four good ol’ boys’ genre of rock & roll. Lewis, cousin to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, takes on the fire and brimstone tone against the evils of rock even as he rocks harder than the others. There are paradoxes in these figures, not least in Phillips who professes his dedication to this music but brags how he invested the money he got for Presley’s contract in the Holiday Inn chain.

Million Dollar Quartet isn’t history, and it doesn’t take apart the characters of these beloved figures. It puts classic rock onstage and shows us men—and a woman—who play and sing in unique ways. The show lets us imagine these four together, on stage in a studio, trying to live up to their own talents. Rock & roll thrives on the inherent drama in that effort, and so does Million Dollar Quartet.

 

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Original concepts and direction by Floyd Mutrux
Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins
Directed by Semina De Laurentis

Music Director: Dominique Scott, Assistant Music Director: Cole; Lighting Design: Matt Guminski; Costume Design: Claire Gaudette; Scenic Design: Daniel Husvar; Production Manager: Stephanie Gordner; Sound Design: Matt Martin

Cast: Cole, Terese Danskey, Jason Loughlin, Perry Orfanella, Mark Ryan, Dominique Scott, Sky Seals, Jeremy Sevelovitz

Seven Angels Theatre
October 26-November 19, 2017

A Showman's Show

Review of He Wrote Good Songs, Seven Angels Theatre

Anthony Newley, subject of actor/singer Jon Peterson’s dazzling one-man show, “…He Wrote Good Songs”, in its CT premiere at Seven Angels in Waterbury, was a colorful entertainer who achieved his greatest successes in the 1960s and died in 1999. I recall seeing him on variety shows in my childhood—he was unforgettable—while many were introduced to him either as a child actor playing the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s non-musical version of Oliver Twist (1948) or in his role as Matthew Mugg in the musical Dr. Doolittle (1967) for which he co-authored the songs.

Newley’s songwriting is no doubt better-known than his performances, as he co-authored—with his primary writing partner Leslie Bricusse—the songs to the cult classic film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), which included “The Candy Man,” a song that seems inescapable. Newley and Bricusse also had their hand in the well-known James Bond movie theme “Goldfinger,” and Newley’s songs—such as “Who Can I Turn To” and “What Kind of Fool Am I”—have been successful hits for various singers, including Nina Simone and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Peterson, who first created “…He Wrote Good Songs” in 2014, was last at Seven Angels in 2009 in his show Song and Dance Man, in which he performed songs by a number of noted singers, Newley among them. The current show—its title comes from a line Newley said should be carved on his tombstone—presents Newley’s story as he himself might tell it, as a mix of his greatest hits held together by a freewheeling narrative of his life.

Jon Peterson as Anthony Newley

Jon Peterson as Anthony Newley

 

Peterson’s Newley is a consummate showman who lets us in on his somewhat checkered career and his string of marriages and infidelities with endearing charm and feckless egotism. This is the world according to Newley—or Tony—and there’s not a lot of soul-searching. It’s more like a view of life as a series of trials, where some things—a song, a show, a marriage—are successes, for awhile, and others aren’t.

The ups and downs are recounted colorfully in Peterson’s off-hand manner. We learn of Newley’s difficult childhood East of London and during the Blitz, of encouragement along the way, of early breaks, of the heady world of a child star in pre-Beatles Britain, and of his ongoing lust for the ladies, which leads him into three marriages—including to British actress Joan Collins—and a host of affairs. Newley, it seems, simply can’t turn off the charm, either in real life or on stage. There’s a lot of success, with Broadway hits and a popular Vegas show, but time keeps moving on and eventually he’s older, accused of being “a self-parody” at one point, and hailed as a genius at another. There are affecting moments, such as a reconciliation with the father who abandoned the family when Tony was a child, and lots of little Borsch-Belt-style asides served up for a chuckle—Newley paid his dues in venerable Catskill venues too.

Daniel Husvar’s set is a bright version of the tough Hackney streets where Newley’s life began, augmented by a comfy chair and clothes trunk, and Peterson runs through numerous costume changes before our eyes, always while chattering on. The songs, though not as familiar as they might be to some, are a constant delight; they are clever, catchy, and, at times, the stuff of soliloquy—“Pure Imagination,” “Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am,” “The Joker”—while elsewhere they give us a chance to bask in Newley’s knack with a hit—“Pop Goes the Weasel.” He throws away big numbers like “Goldfinger” and “Candy Man” as if too well-known (and admits to disliking the latter), and shows an agreeable ability to take whatever life hands out. The show ends, as it must, with “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” the standard that closes Newley’s first major musical, Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, and serves as commentary on a life dogged by many foolish moves.

Peterson’s showmanship is the star here, as he gets to live out for us a life and talent that was meant for the limelight. Newley comes across as a born performer with Peterson giving an uncanny sense of the singer’s unique vocal style, in spare but effective arrangements by Bruce Barnes. And Peterson’s take-offs of those whom Newley encounters punctuate the show with artfully rendered mannerisms, making Newley an accomplished mimic as well.

Newley wrote good songs, indeed. And many are inherently theatrical in being written for shows. Peterson’s brilliant use of the songs to structure Newley’s life story makes this more than just a revue of hits while also serving to remind us of Newley’s way with a song, and way with a story. The best feature of the show is how winning Peterson is, providing the kind of interpersonal thrill that comes from finding oneself, as the saying goes, “in the palm of his hand.” It’s a showman’s show. One imagines Newley himself would be tickled by it.

 

“…He Wrote Good Songs”
Written and conceived by Jon Peterson
Directed by Semina De Laurentis
Musical Direction by Bruce Barnes
Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Bruce Barnes and Jon Peterson

Scenic and Prop Design: Daniel Hsuvar; Lighting Design: Scott Cally; Sound Design: Matt Martin; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth Salisch

Musicians: Musical Director/Arranger/Conductor/Pianist: Bruce Barnes; Bass/Guitar: Louis Tucci; Percussion: Mark Ryan

Seven Angels Theatre
November 3-27, 2016