Deaf culture takes the spotlight in “The Who’s Tommy” as American Sign Language is thoroughly integrated into the concept: The famed “deaf dumb and blind kid” of the “Pinball Wizard” lyric is indeed deaf. Russell Harvard, a deaf performer featured in New York’s recent “Tribes” and “Spring Awakening,” is a magnetic centerpiece for Open Circle Theatre’s pointed new interpretation, which opened over the weekend in the Silver Spring Black Box Theater.
Harvard is a kinetic, highly musical presence as the primary Tommy — and the way this version of Pete Townshend’s rock opera works, you sometimes see as many as four of the traumatized kid at once. Among the multiple Tommys — different ages, different communication methods, sometimes regarding each other from both sides of the story’s conceit of a mirror — Harvard dominates the second act as the older Tommy. He delivers songs in impassioned ASL while dancing and working in sync with Will Hayes, who sings the part in a vulnerable tenor. Younger Tommys are played by Chloe and Kira Mitchiner, and if director Suzanne Richard’s stage is often crowded, it’s never confusing.
It is not always uniformly polished: Sound design issues plagued the Saturday afternoon show as microphones cut out or blared fuzz, and the staging sometimes flags during longer instrumental stretches. These flaws are nearly drowned out, though, by the upside of the music, played with propulsive authority by musical director Jake Null’s six-piece rock band. The guitars churn and the drums rumble; big songs like “Sensation” and “I’m Free” surge with the raw energy that has made the Who’s angsty album so durable across the decades.
The Open Circle mission integrates disabled and non-disabled actors, so the “Tommy” ensemble features hearing and deaf performers as well as some wheelchair users (including Monica Lijewski, the actress who was paralyzed after an accident at the Olney Theatre Center in 2011; Lijewski plays a supporting role in the ensemble). The deaf Tommy’s victimization gets an extra layer of pungency as he’s molested by Uncle Ernie, sung with creepy aggression by Mikey Cafarelli, and as he’s bullied by Cousin Kevin, a character effectively split into two as Carl Williams sings and Aarron Loggins performs in ASL.
Tommy’s self-discovery and pop stardom takes on new layers, too, as Harvard smashes the story’s confining (and symbolic) mirror and bursts into a vibrant new image of himself. Harvard and Hayes work well together, with Hayes deferring slightly to Harvard’s embodiment of Tommy: That’s the show’s focus. Harvard, who has posted ASL music videos on YouTube (including “Pinball Wizard”), has no trouble commanding the stage as the show crests. His exuberance and fierce concentration within songs are galvanizing.
Richard keeps her focus on bodies: Whether by design or necessity, the show is heavily populated but minimally designed. (Open Circle, never flush with cash, has been dormant the past five years.) The story starts in 1945, but with help from video projections, Richard jets the action to the present right away; one big modern payoff comes during the creepy “Fiddle About,” with seamy online messages accompanying the song’s grim lyrics of pedophilia.
Arnulfo Moreno’s projections often seem more muted than intended, though. The choreography for the large cast (which doesn’t seem packed with true dancers) is not exactingly pulled off, either. It’s a punchy “Tommy” anyway, building on the increasing incorporation of deaf culture into musicals as exemplified recently on Broadway by Deaf West Theatre’s “Spring Awakening” and locally by WSC Avant Bard’s “Visible Language.” In this “Tommy,” music and ASL harmonize with force.
The Who’s Tommy Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Directed by Suzanne Richard. ASL master, Neil (Michael) Sprouse; musical staging/choreography, Jen Bevan; set design, Jimmy Stubbs; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Jesse Shipley; sound design, Edward Moser. With Autumn Seavey Hicks, Malcolm Lee, Maggie Leigh Walker and Molly Janiga. Through Nov. 20 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets $30-$45. Call 800-838-3006 or visit opencircletheatre.org.