The Who’s Tommy Presented by StageWorks Fresno

Jul 6, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Terrance V. Mc Arthur, Theatre

by Terrance Mc Arthur

“Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Acid Queen”…’s gotta be Tommy.

In 1969, The Who released their rock-opera album Tommy, which became a chaotic Ken Russell film in the Seventies. In the Nineties, The Who’s Tommy hit the stage. StageWorks Fresno has it at the Dan Pessano Theatre at Clovis North HS through July 17, a confident production from Joel C. Abels and Josh Montgomery.

Childhood trauma and a hypnotic suggestion causes young Tommy Walker to lose his sight, speech, and hearing. After abuse from relatives and attempts to cure him through religion, sex, drugs, and medicine, Tommy finds focus and fame playing pinball. A confrontation with his mother and a mirror breaks through the post-hypnotic barriers, but fame and followers don’t mesh with his new awareness….which is as close to a synopsis as you’re going to get.

Abels has envisioned the show with a monochrome, post-industrial set, filling it with colorful costumes and wigs as the story travels from 1940 to the Sixties. Max Bennett-Parker helms a rock ensemble that sometimes clashes with the singers. Some opening-night sound problems have been solved, and the vocals are well-miked.


Cast of StageWorks Fresno’s production of TOMMY

Mitchell Ham Lau is a tabula rasa as Tommy endures his adolescent trials, blank and unresponsive, changing into a strong, yet compassionate, human being after his living nightmare. He doesn’t have the vindictive, revengeful qualities Roger Daltrey showed in the 1975 film. His narrative songs are full-voiced and smooth, but he can power through “I’m Free” without breaking a sweat.

Special note should be made of Laurel Marshall and Maisie Rae Van Vleet as Tommy at four and 10 years. In Tommy’s catatonic state, they do not fidget or look about at the audience. Maisie is dragged, shoved, and rolled, but she takes it all quietly in stride. Only when she becomes one with the pinball machine does she move, intricately, swiftly,

Amalie Larsen, one of my favorite humans, has a dominating presence as Mrs. Walker that does not bleed over into domineering. Her clear vocals convey everything from fear and frustration to kittenish sexuality and iron resolve.

Uncle Ernie, the crippled relative who buries his depression in alcohol and perversion, is a repulsive character, but Jacob Wilson gives him a redemptive humanity. Resembling Crispin Glover in Back to the Future and Richard Kind (but not in Inside Out), he limps past military officers with shame and

Randy Kohlruss is slimy and cold as Cousin Kevin, stealing presents from a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” in his youth and tormenting his younger cousin in his teens, transforming into a guardian of quiet menace as Tommy’s reputation grows. The explosive Camille Gaston channels Tina Turner as the Gypsy/Acid Queen in the largest Afro wig in captivity. She was so sweet and funny as the seagull in GCP’s The Little Mermaid, but look at her now! Wow!

Mackenzie Stafford injects that growing-up-too-fast little-girl quality in the character of Sally Simpson, the teenybopper who idolizes Tommy. Daniel Longoria weaves his sinuous tenor as the pimpish Hawker. Daniel Rodriguez is solid as Captain Walker, who can be murderous when he finds his wife’s lover, yet protective when he saves his son from the Gypsy’s clutches.

Tommy is a Happening, an Experience, a Rock landmark, and a show you should see.

In the lobby, take a look at the The Who’s Tommy pinball machine, made in 1993, and restored by Michael Argain, who plays The Specialist, and who is a real pinball wizard, with scores in the world’s top five.

The Dan Pessano Theatre at Clovis North HS is on International Avenue between Willow and Chestnut. Tickets are $22-$25. For more information, go to

Check out more theatre reviews & other local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section.

Terrance V. Mc Arthur is a Community Librarian for the WoW! (WithOut Walls) Division of the Fresno County Public Library, roaming the Valley to meet the public’s information needs.


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