John Ambrosino

In 'Tommy' Broadway Debut, John Ambrosino Plays Creepy Uncle Ernie (and Likes It)

Nicholas Dussault READ TIME: 8 MIN.

Hard to imagine that someone could go from touring the country playing Stanley Lambchop to audiences of 6-10 year olds in "The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley" to performing "Pinball Wizard" on a stage with Pete Townshend. But that's been the trajectory of actor John Ambrosino's career from his first professional gig to his upcoming Broadway debut in the much-anticipated revival of "The Who's Tommy."

Calm down Who fans, the iconic rock god Pete Townshend will not be performing in the musical. But when the cast performed at the Broadway Across America conference in Miami, Townshend joined them on stage and performed right along with them. "It's hard to explain the feeling you get, when that riff begins and you realize you're on a stage doing this song with Pete Townshend," Ambrosino said. "It was one of those 'I can't believe this is happening to me' moments."

The actor continued, "We went on stage for notes following our final dress (rehearsal) and he walked onto the stage, hugged me and said, 'How are you, John?' Pete Townshend knows my name and I don't even know what to say. He was here for our first two previews and congratulated us. He's said so many nice things about us. And I'm getting to open this big Broadway show, and it's all colliding and I can't believe how lucky I am."

John Ambrosino as Uncle Ernie in "The Who's Tommy"
Source: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Not that Ambrosino hasn't paid his dues. He has spent 20 years in show business, including the year-long tour of "Flat Stanley" and plenty of shows he auditioned for but never booked. He may have gotten lucky, but that luck was the result of hard work, persistence, and the determination to make his own breaks. When he first saw that The Goodman Theatre in Chicago was planning to produce a revival of "The Who's Tommy" he picked up the phone and tried to get an audition for Uncle Ernie, a role he's always wanted to play. Since he had no agent at the time, he called casting directors Tara Ruben and Merri Sugarman directly and asked if he could be seen for the part. "They saw me and I ended up at the Goodman last summer."

"The Who's Tommy" is based on the classic rock opera album of the same name. After witnessing his father shoot another man, young Tommy becomes deaf, non-verbal, and blind. As a teenager, he discovers that he is a gifted pinball player and his success as a pinball prodigy leads him to fame and fortune as messiah to a cult of followers. The score includes classic hits such as "See Me, Feel Me," "We're Not Gonna Take It," and the iconic "Pinball Wizard." While the rock opera was conceived as a concept album in 1969, it didn't reach Broadway as a stage musical until 1993 under Des McAnuff's direction where it ran for 899 performances. That production won five Tony Awards, including one for Pete Townshend for score and McAnuff for direction. McAnuff returns to direct this revival.

16 members of the cast are making their Broadway debut, most of them from the wildly successful, sold out, record-breaking box office production at the Goodman Theatre. Ambrosino said, "The whole process has been amazing. We knew the show was going to be good, but we went out and did the first preview and the audience went berserk. And it went like that for the rest of the run. They extended it four times." He fondly recalled when one of the younger local actors told him to check his email because they were extending the run. "I told him, don't ever forget this feeling. It doesn't happen very often, so remember it. He's now here at the Nederlander (Theatre) also making his Broadway debut."

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy) and the ensemble in "The Who's Tommy"
Source: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Ambrosino is a wholesome, clean-cut, attractive, all-around great guy who grew up in Avon, Mass, an outer suburb of Boston. This makes it hard to imagine him coveting the role of Uncle Ernie, the vile, alcoholic subject of the song "Do You Think It's Alright?" A drunken Ernie molests the deaf, blind, non-verbal 10-year old, then profits off of him by selling merchandise when Tommy has achieved much fame and fortune.

The actor said he was always drawn to this role because he tends to play against type. "I actually kind of love it," he said. "The thing about it is that most actors are trying to get the audience to love them, but if you do a bad guy, they really shouldn't like you at all. The challenge is to find the reality in whatever the bad, malevolent intentions are."

When asked if, as a musical theater guy, he had any issues with singing classic rock, John pointed out that "Ernie is a tenor, so it was pretty straightforward." Then he quickly heaped praise on Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy), Mark Mitrano, and Jeremiah Alsop for their "amazing vocals."

by Nicholas Dussault

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