Little Theatre of Alexandria has been generating considerable heat onstage during these dog days of summer with its forceful, energetic and heartfelt production of "The Who's Tommy," the original rock opera from Pete Townshend of the venerable English group the Who. But there also is a lot of emotion riding along with the sound waves of the faithfully reproduced score, and that's where the strength of the production ultimately is felt.
Townshend's music and lyrics are iconic, with such songs as "Pinball Wizard," "I'm Free" and "See Me, Feel Me" holding an important place in rock history and pop culture. The album "Tommy" was a mega-smash, and it was rare to find a college dorm room that did not have a well-worn copy of the double album displayed in the years following its 1969 release. The music was later adapted for film, a ballet and, in 1993, a hit Broadway musical.
Director Jack B. Stein and a talented cast of two dozen performers, along with Christopher A. Tomasino's skilled 11-member band, do full justice to the music and to the story, creating three-dimensional characters who movingly showcase the majesty of rising above life's obstacles. This is accomplished despite the murkiness of writer Des McAnuff's "plot," which is supposed to weave the songs into a coherent story.
Much of the music is permanently etched into baby-boomer consciousness, so it's remarkable how Tomasino's band makes it sound just about right. The singers deliver full-throated rock-and-roll singing, and the elegant theater on Wolfe Street really jumps. Judy Lewis's tight, fresh choreography avoids 1960s cliches even as Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting's period costumes joyfully wallow in them.
For those who were born after the Age of Aquarius, here's the story. Tommy Walker, born in London during World War II, witnesses unsettling violence at a tender age, which leaves him, in the words of "Pinball Wizard," a "deaf, dumb and blind kid." Even as his guilt-ridden parents seek a cure, Tommy remains disconnected from his surroundings and vulnerable to abuse and ridicule.
A mystical connection is finally established when the now-teenage boy is placed at a pinball machine, displays remarkable abilities and quickly becomes a celebrity. Another outrageous incident restores Tommy's senses, which elevates his fame (or perhaps notoriety), from which he retreats when his fans begin to turn on him. McAnuff trots out a series of trite themes, such as the perils of the cult of celebrity, dysfunctional families and sexual tensions, but little of it really matters next to the music and the story it capably conveys without his help.
This is an ensemble effort, highlighted by vivid, fervent performances from Steven Block, as the grown-up Tommy; Wade Corder, as Tommy's father, Mr. Walker; Matt Anderson, as sadistic Cousin Kevin; Rafi Hernandez-Roulet, silent but eerily compelling as 10-year-old Tommy; and Jamie Chahine, showing robust vocal chops in a variety of roles. The Who, of course, was all male, so much of the music seems better suited to male voices, but Janice Rivera handles such songs as "Smash the Mirror" and "I Believe My Own Eyes" quite capably as Mrs. Walker.
One of the stars of this production is the simple yet striking and multifaceted set created by Jared Davis, with assistance from Ken Crowley. It has a surreal ability to change appearance when bathed in various lights, allows for multiple scenic changes with the minimum of fuss and incorporates projection screens for a multimedia extravaganza of images that punctuate Tommy's tale.
"The Who's Tommy" concludes this weekend at Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. Showtime is 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday. For tickets, call 703-683-0496. For more information, visit www.thelittletheatre.com.