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

Nicholas Dussault READ TIME: 8 MIN.

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."

John Ambrosino's first headshot in 2006
Source: Instagram

Like many professional theater actors, John is no stranger to life on the road or even long-term relocation. Though he calls New York City home, he spent two years in Las Vegas doing "Jersey Boys," the musical story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. "That was another show where the audience went berserk every night. It's a pretty incredible feeling." He also spent three years touring with "Les Misérables," playing Bamatabois for "908 performances."

Ambrosino began his career in Boston in an internship at the then-fledgling SpeakEasy Stage Company. "Their upcoming production was a musical and they hired me to work backstage," he says. "I knew right then what I wanted to do."

He later founded his own company, Animus Ensemble, and directed nine musicals over six years in Boston, including "Promises, Promises!" and "Once Upon a Mattress."

At that point he was once again bitten by the acting bug, which led him to his first national tour, "Flat Stanley." But being nimble and diversifying talents is part of the secret of his success. After "Jersey Boys" he the acquired the rights to the Academy Award-winning short film "Trevor," the story of a 13-year-old boy who tries to commit suicide as a result of being bullied because he was gay. Ambrosino spent the next eight years working with Josie Bray, and Mark Woods turning it into "Trevor: the Musical." They mounted their first production in 2017 at the Writer's Theater in Chicago. As the show was about to launch, John booked "Les Miz."

When he returned to "Trevor: the Musical," he and his fellow producers partnered with Tony Award-winning producer Roy Furman to mount an off-Broadway, commercial run. They began performances just before the pandemic hit. The cast is mostly children, so when they came back from the pandemic, they had to recast the entire show. They opened with a new cast in 2021, which was right before the Omicron wave of Covid hit. According to Ambrosino, "Everyone in the cast came down with Covid and people who were willing to come out to a show were saying they could go to a Broadway show for the same price. That's a really hard thing for a producer to hear."

But it wasn't all bad news. Radical Media recorded a live video capture of the production that is, according to John, "currently streaming on Disney+. That's the same company that filmed "Hamilton." I still can't believe our show streams on Disney+. It feels surreal."

Ambrosino fondly recalls his time as an artist in Boston. "It was some of the most thrilling and wonderful times of my life. I'm not so sure I would be where I am if it weren't for that place, the wonderful group of artists there. They were such champions of what I did. It's a connection that's so important to me." He claims that wherever he goes, there's always somebody in the group that has a connection to someone from Boston.

Not a bad run so far for the actor, producer, director. As he prepares for his Broadway debut, he remains extremely grateful for the career that he has had. He continues to call himself "lucky," but most of that luck was a direct result of his own hard work. When asked if he was happy to be living the dream, he said, "I'm not sure I'm living THE dream. But I'm certainly living mine and for that I am forever grateful."

For more information on John Ambrosino, visit his Instagram page.

For more information on "The Who's Tommy," visit the show's website.

Watch this trailer to "The Who's Tommy"

by Nicholas Dussault

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