By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Joseph Morales is enjoying the challenge of playing “that deaf, dumb and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball.”
Making his East West Players debut, he plays the title role in “The Who’s Tommy,” which opened on May 13 and has just been extended to June 21.
The rock opera started out in 1969 as a double album by the British band The Who, which was made into a movie in 1975. The stage version premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1992 and opened on Broadway the following year. Most recently, a revival was produced for the Stratford Festival of Canada in 2013.
The current production, featuring 17 actors and six musicians, celebrates the 50th anniversary of both The Who and East West Players.
Cliffton Hall and Deedee Magno Hall, who are married in real life, play Tommy’s parents, the Walkers. Capt. Walker goes off to war and is reported missing, presumed dead, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Years later, Capt. Walker unexpectedly returns to find Mrs. Walker with her new lover (Cesar Cipriano). The two men fight and the lover is killed.
Witnessing this causes 4-year-old Tommy (played by Van Brunelle on Fridays and by Araceli Prasarttongosoth on all other days) to lose his eyesight, hearing and power of speech. His parents take him to a variety of specialists, but even as a 10-year-old (Michayla Brown), he remains unresponsive.
Morales plays an alter ego that only young Tommy can see and hear when he looks in the mirror, then takes center stage as a grown-up Tommy who gains fame as a “pinball wizard” despite his disability. When he regains his senses, he becomes an even bigger celebrity, with people looking to him for answers.
Born into a military family, Morales grew up mostly in Texas and Hawaii, studied theater at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, and moved to New York City.
He said of his motivation to become a performer, “I guess the military part of it had something to do with it because we’d move around and the fastest way for me to meet people would be to do the shows. So that’s kind of how it started. And then it was just something that I loved doing and I decided to go to school for it, and the rest kind of just unfolded.”
Morales appeared in Disney stage productions, which he described as a good “boot camp” for learning to act, sing and dance. He was in “High School Musical” with Bailey Hanks at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
“I worked with Deedee before, who plays my mother,” he recalled. “We were doing ‘Aladdin’ at Disney … She played Jasmine and I played Aladdin, and now she’s my mother. That’s definitely a switch.”
His first big show was “Rock of Ages,” a musical built around classic hits of the 1980s. Working with the original creative team, “we workshopped it here in L.A., we took it to Vegas,” he said. “So that was a huge deal at the time.”
In the national tour of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights,” which is set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, “My particular part involved a lot of rapping. I was kind of the narrator of the show … I actually took over for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote it and starred in it … It’s a really cool show, lots of pop and hip-hop and great dancing. They actually are the same team that came out with ‘Hamilton,’ which is blowing up New York right now.”
Morales also toured with “Bombay Dreams,” which he described as “pretty much a Bollywood movie on stage. A lot of fun. Directed by Baayork Lee, who was in the original company of ‘Chorus Line.’ I was in the ensemble, one of the dancers.”
“Asian Enough,” “Hispanic Enough”
Asked if his multiethnic background has impacted his career one way or the other, Morales responded, “It’s interesting because the last thing I did I was Latin, and now I’m Asian. This is actually the first time I’ve ever been considered Asian. Although I am a quarter Japanese, I guess because of my last name I fall in the Latin category. People assume …
“It’s changing and it’s kind of cool to be multicultural, but yeah, I find that a lot of the times I’m never Asian enough or never Hispanic enough or I’m not white enough. But even in the past couple years it’s all kind of changing.”
Not only has Morales never acted with EWP before, but he also has never seen any of its shows. “But I have a lot of friends that have worked for the company. A lot of people from Hawaii have actually worked with the company as well, so I knew about them even from Hawaii.”
Morales, who was cast about a month before rehearsals started, had to take a crash course on “Tommy.” “When I was going to audition for it, I started watching the movie, but the movie was just so crazy. [The movie was a big-budget spectacle featuring The Who and guest artists like Elton John, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton.] So I started doing some research online and watching clips of the Broadway production … Awesome music. I’m kind of actually surprised how much I do really like it.”
Whether you grew up with ’60s rock or have never heard of The Who, “everybody seems to really enjoy it,” he said. For younger people, “I think it is different but I also think they really respond to the music.”
Becoming Tommy was no easy task. “He goes from being deaf, dumb and blind to being this rock star, so they’re complete opposites. So the deaf, dumb and blind part came pretty easy; it was mostly about finding my inner rock star. But Janet (Roston), our choreographer, really helped me … We watched a lot of 1980s rock bands. One of my examples was Tom Cruise in ‘Magnolia.’ Just really inhabiting that rock star energy. So that was probably the biggest challenge, but also it’s been the most fun.”
For Morales, the takeaway from the show “is that the only way to really find out the truth in the world is to live externally. We’re all living internally in our own individual perceptions … I think I kind of related to that, just this idea of perspective and how we’re all kind of looking inward for something when really we should be experiencing each other and learning from those people around us.”
He had nothing but praise for the actors who play young Tommy. “They’re the best … The children are so great and the parents are just as great. They’ve kind of been the rock in our production. They’re just such a joy to be with every day. They make it so fun, they keep it all calm and lighthearted. I’m really thankful for all three of the kids …
“I don’t know where they get it from, because this is all of their first productions, but they just somehow intuitively know what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re such pros. It’s really kind of fascinating, actually.”
The cast had four weeks to rehearse. “So much of it relied on all the technical aspects as well, so we tried to get ourselves blocked as fast as possible … then we started bringing on the projections, the set, the lights … It was pretty fast, but looking back it was kind of seamless.”
Currently a full-time business student at the Los Angeles Film School, Morales said he is trying to find a balance between study and work. “Thankfully, we were able to rehearse at night and on weekends and I have class in the mornings … I’m tired, but it’s worked out.”
As for his plans after graduation in January, “If I find this super cool job, then I’ll go in that direction, and if not, keep acting and see what happens with that. I have a feeling it’s all going to somehow be combined at some point. Especially now in L.A., you’re kind of expected to do everything. A lot of actors are producing their own stuff or producing other people’s stuff … I want to be a part of all of that, or at least know a little about a lot.”
“The Who’s Tommy,” directed by Snehal Desai with musical direction by Marc Macalintal, is playing at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St. in Little Tokyo. Showtimes: Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Info: (213) 625-7000, www.eastwestplayers.org.