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03 June 2009


If anyone was doubting Rock Eblen's ability to effectively produce, direct, and act in a Broadway style musical using only local talent, they should have seen his latest effort at Diana Wortham Theatre May 14-17. A wise collaboration with The Asheville Arts Center put Eblen at the helm for this ambitious project despite the lean economy and stiff competition with other local theaters. On opening night audience members were practically jumping out of their seats when the cast came out for curtain call.

Last year, Eblen pulled off JC SUPERSTAR in the same venue, although one writer in this blog seemed bent on attacking him for taking on the role of Jesus. The guy likes to act and he's damn good at it...so what if he also produces and directs at the same time? A true artist doesn't heed people who say "You can't do that!" So if one chooses to be so bold, he better know theater, and he better know how to cast good local talent who will do it for no pay. This is community theater we're talking about...yet I overheard tourists in the audience who thought TOMMY was a professional production. That's how good it was.

Of course it wasn't flawless. There were some problems with body mics cutting out, and a few missed light cues. The band sound levels had to be adjusted, but once the musicians got rockin', every head, even the grey heads, started bobbin' to Pete Townshend's classic rock score. Chuck Taft is a gifted musical director, able to handle anything from The Who's wild stuff to Lerner and Loewe. The music was pretty much non-stop with small bits of dialogue to elucidate Tommy's journey. Excellent choreography came from Mary Katherine Smith, and Susan Sertain of The Costume Shoppe put together delightful period costumes ranging from the 40's to the 60's.

Another fascinating aspect of this production was the staging. Eblen had the actors zipping stylish sets in and out while scenes magically blended into each other. He designed two of the set pieces from scratch, one being a flashy pinball machine Tommy could actually ride on, and the other a giant yellow slanted "T" (toppled Tommy) which took on various disguises to become by turn a Union Jack court, a purple pulpit, and even a bright red gypsy chariot.

Talk about gypsys, Margaret Evans was belting like Tina when she took little Tommy and the audience for a ear-bending ride with the Acid Queen.

Young Gabriel Gibson was perfect as the deaf, dumb, and blind kid who made many eyes moist that evening. Payton Turpin was major comic relief with his Uncle Ernie's Holiday Camp song on a giant tricycle. Newcomer Brad Pearsall was hot in black leather as he strutted and crooned the role of bully Cousin Kevin. Nicely polished duets came from Kelli Mullinix (Mrs.Walker) with Rod Leigh (Lover and The Hawker) and a new song added to the show by Townshend which she sang with Eblen as Captain Walker. The all important role of Narrator/Tommy was caked with charisma by Michael Wilson whose voice can melt your bones.

This was a terrific fundraiser for Eblen Charities and proves Bioflyer Productions is here to stay. So if you missed it, you missed it. But I dare you to find anybody WHO did see it WHO didn't love THE WHO'S TOMMY.

--Estella Banks


Jason said...

Who wrote this review?

Asheville Performing Arts Reviews: Online and Ontarget said...

Sorry, that was an editorial error. The poster's name has now been restored.

dramagurl said...

The reviewer neglected to mention the incredible multi-media and special effects in this show. It was a very sophisticated presentation, and it's about time Eblen gets the accolades he deserves for his long-term commitment to innovative theater in this town.
He's also got the good sense to collaborate with other great local talent like conductor Chuck Taft and lighting designer Jason Williams.

E. Rollins said...

AM I THE ONLY PERSON WHO ACTUALLY SAW THIS SHOW? I'm sorry, but I can hardly agree with any of the comments regarding Eblen's production of Tommy on this site. The only exceptional elements in this entire production were the band directed by Chuck Taft, the voice of Margaret Evans, the performance of Gabriel Gibson, and ONE slightly notable dance number; even these attributes had their moments.

To say that 'audience members were practically jumping out of their seats' at the show's conclusion was true...but in my case and in the case of the majority of audience members around me, we were trying to leave before the urge to demand a refund became overwhelming.

The show was BORING and overpriced. The multi-media effects were stolen from another production that can be found easily online. The costumes were visually appealing at times, but one can hardly call them 'period.' The staging, or lack thereof, was dull at best; often one actor would be onstage at a time doing NOTHING BUT AIMLESSLY WANDERING AROUND A POORLY CONCEIVED IMAGINARY SET. And speaking of the set, the scene changes were slow and almost nauseating due to their pointless complexity. The actors were viably frustrated participating in these changes. NOT TO MENTION the fact that the TIME SPENT changing the set from the completely stark 'neutral picture' to the 'home setting' was greater than the duration of the scenes played in the 'home setting.' The show was not balanced...one could definitely determine the scenes that received the most rehearsal time, which is often a side effect of a director attempting to act in one of his or her own productions. The vocal aspects of this show were valiantly attempted...but there is a difference between singers that act and actors that sing--this show was quite a survey of the weaker sides of both. I DON'T THINK THE SHORTCOMINGS RESULTED FROM LACK OF TALENT AMONG THE ACTORS, I think this show revealed the symptoms of a frustrated cast that could have used more directoral attention. The words 'just singing in musical theatre doesn't cut it...you have to do it with conviction' should have been uttered to some of the leads. I would also recommend voice lessons for Michael Wilson, as his vocal technique was visibly damaging, and while his voice does have a pleasant quality...just because you have an instrument doesn't mean you know how to play it.

I am baffled by several elements of this show. I can not understand why the white-vested Tommy (when RIDING the pinball machine) was moving like an epileptic with his jaw dropped like a post-stroke patient. I would like to know why the song 'Fiddle About' was cut, but the acid queen hookers could remain. I have no clue why Rock Eblen cast himself in a role NOT AT ALL CONDUCIVE TO HIS VOCAL RANGE and took a final bow (tacky, considering the blatant egotism surrounding his approach to this show).

I think it's nice that Rock Eblen has the resources to facilitate his passion, but perhaps he should take another approach to future productions. For some, directing and simultaneously performing in a show work nicely...but this show is proof that Rock Eblen is not one of those individuals.

These remarks are my opinion, and none are meant to hurt feelings, but I feel that someone must tell the truth regarding Eblen's Tommy--it was mediocre at outstanding best.

Not a Critic said...

Did Mountain Express send one of its new reviewers to see this production? E.Rollins' comments suggest some further opinion might be helpful. Does Mr. Eblen have training in theatre? Is he seeking professional standards or just wanting his cast and audience to have a good time for a good cause.

In Mountain Express recently Mr Crutchfield said, "What Goethe said about criticism in general applies certainly to reviewers in particular: You have to answer three questions: One, what is the artist trying to do? Two, how well does the artist succeed in doing it? and three, is it worth doing?" Maybe someone who saw the production can evaluate it in those terms.

Trevor said...

Well...opinions are like (bleep) and everybody's got one. Since this is a public blog, people can be down right nasty if they wanna--even if they offer semi-apologies after the fact. What gets me is the diversity of reactions--ya loved it or ya hated it? Some of these comments seem a bit too stabbing for my taste. You never see such jabs at community theater posted in local papers. Is Mr. Rollins qualified to be theater critic in the same sense Mr. Eblen is qualified to be an actor/producer/director?

Could Mr. Rollins have done a better job mounting TOMMY? Almost seems like something personal going on here. Did he not get cast at auditions?
According to the TOMMY Playbill, Rock Eblen earned an MA in Theatre at the University Of Michigan. That doesn't automatically make him an artist, but one proves oneself through time by repeated commitment to one's art. Eblen has a pretty loyal following among the local theater crowd who have been watching his efforts at least since the 90's. If you go further back, you'll find people who remember his well-received work with ACT in the 70's. My point being, look at a person's history before you lampoon them.

If you check with the Asheville Arts Center, you'll find that Eblen fronted the money for this production out of his own pocket--not from his family. In fact, the whole point was to raise money for the Eblen Charities, which is a well-respected community service throughout WNC.

The fact is, the audience did leap up in sincere appreciation that night I saw the show--not as Mr. Rollins implies to head for the door--but because they recognized a local boy who done it good.

Rae said...

I saw Tommy on it's preview dress night, and while it wasn't the final product (and I know how rough final dress nights can be as a pretty well seasoned performer) I do believe there was merit in what I saw...but I was not as blown away as 'Estella Banks' nor as disgusted as 'E. Rollins.'

TOMMY was written by a band, not a Broadway big shot. That being said, it should come as no surprise that the music of TOMMY is naturally the strongest aspect of its performance--and it was. I found moments of the show particularly enjoyable: the acid queen sequence was executed with conviction and a FABULOUS performance by Margaret Evans; the young Tommy was charming, and the cast worked hard to entertain their audiences--I enjoyed watching the (for lack of better definition) chorus members of this production, as I feel that they created a strong ensemble.

In regards to E. Rollins comments: I do agree that the set changes were tedious at times. Perhaps not as many set pieces were needed to convey location; from my experience I have found that simple sets (and consistently simple sets) better lend themselves to keeping the performers in sharpest focus for audience members. ESPECIALLY in such a music heavy show as TOMMY. I did notice a degree of inconsistency in the scene to scene quality but, considering the amount of scenes in this production, I don't find the variation surprising.

I would like to know if Mr. Eblen had an assistant director, or someone to observe his personal rehearsal process--if not, I would recommend hiring one for future endeavors when he is simultaneously performing. An extra critical eye is always beneficial, especially when attempting a character that interacts with others frequently.

In regards to the nature of this particular show review: I find it interesting that only the credentials of the negative reviewer were called into question, while the more positive reviewers' were held in a higher regard. If one's right to what they feel is determined by their level of education, I don't know if many reviewers on this site are "qualified to be theater [critics]." I would also like to note and reiterate that the amount of education one may have obtained does not necessarily correlate with one's artistic ability, and that to an audience member--an actors' education should have no effect on their opinion of the actor's performance. What matters is if the audience members enjoyed what the performer offered or not. If they were compelled by the performer's display. If they would come and see it again. In the performing world, one's history shouldn't act as a barrier around one's work--every time we step on stage we subject ourselves to different dispositions, and therefore must not be afraid of receiving audience opinions--positive or negative. Heck, if everything we did was great, why would we try new methods, choices, and interpretations?

In conclusion, I feel lukewarm about the show, but really, I would prefer to get my TOMMY fix from the album, anyway.

Not a Critic said...

Helpful comments from Rae for one who has not seen the production.

Richard said...

Rae makes some good points. I think Trevor was trying to address 'Not a critics' question about Mr. Eblen's training in theater and what the goals of the production were--which is a significant query. When pursuing one's art, there is a certain risk and vulnerability in "laying it out" for all to see, unless you are confident, or at least brave enough. I personally think Eblen has consistently ventured where few in Asheville have gone before. Diana Wortham is an expensive venue for local shows, especially during a challenged economy. Perhaps Mr. Rollins doesn't realize that a one weekend show there costs around $20,000 to mount, which makes a $25 ticket pretty sparse EVEN if you fill the house each night.

Aside from the boldness, however, Eblen gives local talent a chance to shine in one of our best downtown venues with a professional staff.
From what I've seen, Eblen handles most of the PR, the set design, the sound design, special effects-etc, managing the entire production without an 'assistant director' which could indeed be helpful, but considering the work load (and at 56 years old) the man's got energy.

As a member in one of Eblen's past productions, what I can say without reservation is that the guy is a hard worker and really tries to listen to and include his cast in the process of creativity. That's why his ensemble players have as much fun as the leads.

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