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Outre Theatre Company creates sparks with the Who's 'Tommy'

Correspondent

"Iconic" is a vastly overused adjective these days, but in the case of the Who's 1969 rock opera "Tommy," the description holds up. Written largely by guitarist Pete Townshend, whose thrilling intro to "Pinball Wizard" establishes the hit song's intensity before lead singer Roger Daltrey utters a word, the concept album would inspire multiple artistic interpretations.

A Montreal ballet company, the Seattle Opera, the London Symphony, filmmaker Ken Russell and, most recently, a bluegrass band have all taken on the story of a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" who becomes a pinball champion. In 1993, after a regional theater tryout and perhaps inevitably, "Tommy" went to Broadway as a musical created by Townshend and director Des McAnuff.

It's that version of "Tommy" that the Outré Theatre Company is now presenting in Boca Raton's cozy Showtime Performing Arts Theatre space. The change in scale from a Broadway-size musical to an intimate one presents challenges and opportunities, advantages and disadvantages.

Director Skye Whitcomb and choreographer Jerel Brown have to fit 13 singing, dancing actors on a small stage, so production designer Guy Haubrich has created more space with stairs and a runway extending into the audience. A screen above the playing area allows for projections that chronicle the passage of time, from Tommy's birth in 1940 to his celebrity in the '60s, along with images that help tell the story.

With musical direction by Caryl Fantel, the production features impressive South Florida talent, including Carbonell Award nominee and Silver Palm Award winner Mike Westrich as the adult Tommy and Carbonell/Silver Palm winner Clay Cartland as Tommy's dad, Captain Walker. Although there were multiple sound issues on the night I saw the show, with mikes cutting in and out, it is nonetheless thrilling to watch a rock-raspy Westrich perform as he's standing two feet away from you.

The story of "Tommy," you may remember, is as unsettling as its music is unforgettable. Mrs. Walker (Victoria Lauzun) and her valiant husband (Cartland) are married just before he is sent to war in Nazi Germany. After Captain Walker is captured, then presumed dead, his wife gives birth to a healthy baby boy she names Tommy. By the end of the war, she has taken up with a boyfriend, only to have her husband reappear. When Captain Walker shoots and kills the other man, a traumatized young Tommy (Carsten Kjaerulff) witnesses the crime and retreats into a catatonic state, seemingly unable to hear, speak or see.

As his parents continue to search for a cure, Tommy is subjected to bullying and outright abuse, from his drunken Uncle Ernie (Ben Prayz), his nasty Cousin Kevin (Eytan Deray) and assorted thugs. The kid becomes famous for his incomparable skill at pinball, and after a second trauma in young adulthood reverses his condition, Tommy becomes the equivalent of a cultish rock god with obsessed followers. Although other versions of "Tommy" don't end happily, the musical does.

The voices of its talented cast are Outré's strongest asset. Westrich is a charismatic, compelling Tommy, and though Kjaerulff does sing at some points in the show, he is remarkably still and focused as life swirls around the unresponsive young Tommy.

Cartland and Lauzun sing beautifully as Tommy's anguished parents (though she's sometimes hard to hear). Looking more like a dedicated drug user than the movie version's glam Tina Turner, Sandi Stock belts "The Acid Queen." Prayz is mild-mannered yet deeply creepy as Uncle Ernie, and Deray uses his big voice to bully as Cousin Kevin. Mallory Newbrough as the Tommy-besotted Sally Simpson, and ensemble members Erica Rose Dade, Kat Gold, Kimmi Johnson, Hugo Moreno and Phillip Andrew Santiago easily fill the Showtime space with their powerful sound.

Physically, "Tommy" is better suited to a larger space, one that would accommodate a bigger set and a live band. But if you love the Who's iconic rock opera — and judging from the number of audience members who rock out in their seats or mouth the words, many do — experiencing a well-sung, scaled-down version of Tommy's amazing journey may be an appealing escape from the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

"Tommy" is an Outré Theatre Company production running through Dec. 18 at the Showtime Performing Arts Theatre, 503 SE Mizner Blvd., in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $40 ($30 seniors, $20 students). To order, call 866-811-4111 or go to OutreTheatreCompany.com.

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