You may remember him as Tonex (pronounced “To-nay”). The young mega-talent, who won a Craig Noel Award for Dreamgirls in 2008, changed his name. He’s now B. Slade. His skills have changed a bit, too. Starring in The Who’s Tommy at the San Diego Rep, he’s even better, more polished, more assured. Des McAnuff, who cowrote the book for Tommy with Pete Townshend, is bringing a new Jesus Christ Superstar to the La Jolla Playhouse in November. Tonex — er, B. Slade — would make a perfect Judas. Both love to sing circles around the stratosphere.
Slade plays the older Tommy. For the first seven scenes he hovers like a ghost. He watches his younger selves — ages four and ten — so traumatized by a crime they’re deaf, dumb, blind, and abused. Slade’s Tommy sees and feels what they can’t.
Come Scene 8, Slade sings “Sensation” and finally gets to cut loose. He struts around, all in white. He eyes the audience knowingly, and gives the familiar song — to those who know the music — a much more contemporary vocal attack. Purists may rankle (as I often do when someone messes with a beloved rendition). But Slade’s notes-inside-of-notes approach liberates the musical in a striking way.
By the time it reached Broadway, after originating at the La Jolla Playhouse, The Who’s Tommy had been severely toned down. A touring version, which came to the San Diego Civic a few years back, was even more muted — and tight (that show was paced, first and foremost). When Slade sings “Sensation,” the Sam Woodhouse–directed production sets a new tone for the musical. Woodhouse and Slade aren’t just presenting The Who’s Tommy, they’re unleashing it.
The Rep’s staging is rambunctious, cocky, and kick-ass. The tone’s much closer to the original 1969 double album than the playhouse version. It’s got more snarl (Pete Townshend always looked like he didn’t like your looks). Along with veteran performers, Woodhouse has cast students from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. Whether dancing to Javier Velasco’s inventive choreography, singing, or playing in the 19-piece band under Steve Gunderson’s expert direction, they give the work a constant, antsy energy.
Which pushes the production over the book’s many hurdles. In the original, Tommy becomes a pinball wizard, then a messiah. “But no one had the guts to leave the temple,” so his followers dump him. The musical flips the house. Now Tommy wants to be “normal,” like everyone else. He says, in effect, there’s no place like home. In both versions, the logical leaps are breathtaking.
The songs, laced by buzz-saw guitar work, make the story seem important. And the Rep’s got singers. Carey Rebecca Brown, as Tommy’s mother, and Zachary Harrison, as his father, are such a gifted duo that the show almost stops for good in Scene 16. They sing — a foot apart and roaring — “I Believe My Own Eyes.” Then she does the unthinkable: her voice flares out even more with “Smash the Mirror.” Slade follows with one of the musical’s few complete numbers — “I’m Free” — after which the book has an inevitable sag.
Wearing Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s excellent mod and rocker costumes (and Missy Bradstreet and Louticia Grier’s wigs), the supporting cast is led by Anise Ritchie’s Tina-like Gypsy, Victor Hernandez and Louis Pardo, as evil Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin, and the versatile James Newcomb in a variety of feisty roles.
Its dreamlike moments are the best part of Sleeping Beauty Wakes, at La Jolla Playhouse. The awake moments edge toward being edgy but feel forced, explanatory, and, ultimately, generic.
According to her father, who claims to be a king, Rose has been asleep for 900 years. Every prince who kissed her was a frog. So her father brings her to “an under-funded” sleep-disorder clinic at a “mediocre institution.” Along with four patients, a disgruntled doctor, and an unlikely Prince Charming, she wakes up and becomes, in many ways, Rip Van Winkle.
Is she a princess or just the daughter of a hyper-controlling father who won’t let her turn 17?
The dance numbers, choreographed beautifully by Doug Varone, make a strong case for the fairy tale — especially “Drifting,” a fluid sequence that turns the hospital into a Lethe-like moat (Peter Nigrini’s watery projections complete the dreamscape).
Wearing a flaming-red dress, Aspen Vincent grows in assertion as Rose/princess. Bryce Ryness not only sings quite well, as a narcoleptic/cataplexic orderly he makes physical bumbling look like ballet (their duet “Awake” is another highlight, though the rhyme schemes, for Brendan Milburn’s hard-pop score, are often grindingly predictable). Bob Stillman sang unevenly the night I caught the show, the voice at times falling short of the target, though he gave the father intriguing, dual possibilities.
Four patients, like a Greek chorus, provide backup support. But the real find is Kecia Lewis-Evans. She underplays the been-there, done-it doctor, to good comic effect. She’s also — a dream or the past come alive? — the evil, scissor-handed fairy who caused the princess’s woe. Or is she both? After all, she says, these stories always start with a “beautiful girl cursed by an older lady with issues.” ■
The Who’s Tommy, music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, book by Townshend and Des McAnuff
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: B. Slade, Carey Rebecca Brown, Zachary Harrison, Victor Hernandez, Louis Pardo, Anise Ritchie, James Newcomb, Michelle Pereira, Javier Garcia, Victor Chan; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Trevor Norton; sound, Tom Jones; choreography, Javier Velasco; musical director, Steve Gunderson
Playing through August 14: Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; 619-544-1000
Sleeping Beauty Wakes, book by Rachel Sheinkin, music by Brendan Milburn, lyrics by Valerie Vigoda
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Rebecca Taichman; cast: Bryce Ryness, Aspen Vincent, Bob Stillman, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Steve Judkins, Jimmy Ray Bennett, Adinah Alexander, Carrie Manolakos; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Miranda Hoffman; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Leon Rothenberg; projection designer, Peter Nigrini; musical director, James Sampliner
Playing through August 21; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; 858-550-1010