THE WHO’S TOMMY, a review By Dr. Randall Harmon, University of Northern Colorado School of Theatre Arts and Dance

July 30 & 31, 2016

Laredo, TX

By definition, a “community theatre” exists to fulfill the purpose outlined in its very name: a community of theatre lovers who make theatre for themselves, and for the community in which they live and work. Generally, implied in their mission is that participants are motivated by a love of the satisfaction that performing brings to each of them. Sharing their performance with their hometown friends, is the reward for their effort. No one gets paid, rather, all involved dedicate themselves to the practice of the craft, or to the love of their fellow company members, or to the intoxication of just giving their town a good show.

Recently I had the great fortune to be invited to travel down to Laredo, TX to see a production of THE WHO’S TOMMY that a former student of mine, José Flores, had directed for Laredo Theatre Guild International. At the first chord, I realized I was in for a special experience, and proceed to become totally enraptured by the tidal wave of sights and songs that came at me. By intermission the energy and excitement in the audience confirmed this. The electricity in the house was palpable as the lights came up for intermission. Most patrons stayed in or close to their seats, chatting with neighbors, comparing their views on how great a show it was. Literally, an audible buzz in the auditorium carried this energy into the second act. At the final chord, the audience leapt to its feet in appreciation, and in celebration of the show’s high level of talent and professional production standards; the PRIDE this gathering of Laredoans have in their very dedicated local theatre community very present and dominant in that moment.

As I waited to greet the cast members in the lobby, I stood for a few minutes in awe observing a community appreciating THEIR community theatre. Again, the audience’s energy, which filled and resounded in the lobby of the Fine and Performing Arts Center of Texas A&M International University, was infectious. It’s no wonder this town is creating such good theatre, and rearing such talented young performers.

THE WHO’S TOMMY has ascended to a favored spot in the American canon of musical theatre classics. Musical Theatre audiences around the country for community theatres, university theatre departments, professional regional theatres, and touring theatre companies, all enjoy TOMMY’s mix of nostalgia and energy; its tough story about the traumas faced by the boomers’ modern world–war, drug-addiction, pedophilia, bullying, marginalization of persons with disabilities, depression–but climaxing with it’s beloved redeeming resolution. Older audience members relish the classic rock and psychodelia of their youth, while reveling in watching the younger generations discover new connections through Pete Townsend’s transcendent compositions and lyrics. The original concept album and art film pop icons of the first generation of rock-and-roll have been transformed through this 5-time Tony award-winning musical into a new pop icon of millennial American culture.

The production I so enjoyed at LTGI last weekend capitalized on all that this popular rock opera had to offer . . . and then some. Director Jose Flores really delivered as he lovingly built this production for his native city. A long time devotee to not only this musical, but to Pete Townsend and The Who, Flores has been waiting for the the right nexus of performing talent, financial underwriting, and design prowess to produce his dream project, for “his fellow dreamers,” the way he knew his town Laredo deserved. Not only was the show designed to capitalize on all the technical wizardry and great potential that the TAMIU’s theatre had to offer, but the production showcased the depth of the young theatre talent of Laredo. His staging, combined with the stunning choreography of Waldo Gonzalez, and powerful singing and music provided by the performers and pit orchestra, deftly told this complex, emotional story, simultaneously giving the audience an amazing driving rock opera spectacle, but also a nuanced, and at times emotionally evocative performance of the story.

Ricky Holguin expressed through his emotional gesture and dance the internal personal struggles for identity and self-love caused by such severe emotional trauma and depression. When sharing with his younger selves (charmingly and nimbly portrayed by Adrian Tristan and Jose Treviño) the way he reached out for them, touched their hands and embraced them, truly struck your heart with its poignancy and intensely engaged emotion. Flores’ staging of the three Tommys will forever define for me interpretive excellence in any future production of this musical I happen to see.

Mark Gonzalez’s digital projection design was sheer genius. Frequently, digital projection can easily steal a show, overpowering and upstaging the performers, but Gonzalez’s design set the emotional tone throughout the production, while also effectively underscoring the settings required in the story. A fragmented LED video screen filled the space between the playing space and a colored cyclorama, and was at all times the perfect mixture of setting/period reference, emotional tone, and rock graphic extravaganza. Other stand out performances included Alma Proa’s heartfelt Mrs. Walker and Monika Sánchez’s Gypsy/Acid Queen.

Telissa Molano’s set design literally “set the stage” for the production’s success. Effectively, she used risers and mobile cubes to provide just enough visual foundation for any setting the libretto required, however, contrary to many productions of this musical I’ve seen, her minimalist approach also emulated the visual metaphor of the inside of a pinball machine very well. The changing LED lighting accents, and the giant flippers were a constant compliment to the high energy of the performance, and never a detraction.

Hacel Arias’s costumes and Susie Laurel’s wigs completed the quality rendition of this complex show. So many costumes accurately reflected the different decades of the 20th-century story, while also deftly interweaving just enough south Texas/Borderland visual style and color to subliminally communicate that THIS production of THE WHO’S TOMMY was very distinctly Laredoan.

Make no mistake, THIS generation of Laredo theatre brings their love, and dedication, and energy and huge talent to their community. In just seven years, Laredo Theatre Guild International, in the terrific venues of TAMIU and LCC, is leading a theatre revolution in Laredo. If you’ve not already been infected by their buzz, you need to be a part of their next season of shows.

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Laredo Theater Guild International
P.O. Box 451337
Laredo, Texas 78045