Tommy a largely successful assault on the senses

Stratford Festival
Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Directed by Des McAnuff
Avon Theatre
Runs until October 19
Approximate running time: 2 hours and five minutes (with one interval)
Tickets: or online

Arguably there are three ground-breaking musical events that marked a dramatic shift in the tone of rock music: Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (1965); the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and the Who’s Tommy (1969), the latter acknowledged by most as the prototype rock opera.

Lest quibbling facts get in the way, let’s first acknowledge that Tommy was not the first rock opera, although the most famous of the Swingin’ Sixties. It was predated by the group’s own A Quick One While He’s Away, a nine-minute thematic suite from the 1966 album A Quick One; the little known The Story of Simon Simopath by a band called Nirvana (not the Kurt Cobain-led group of a decade later) and The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow of 1968.

Annoying history notes aside, suffice it to say Tommy took its rightful place as the most influential of the early rock operas, being transformed into a delightfully gaudy flick by director Ken Russell (landing both Townsend and Ann-Margaret Oscar nominations) and lastly Des McAnuff’s wildly successful Tony-award winning Broadway hit of 1993.

So there was one simple double-barreled question overshadowing the grand opening of the revisited classic at the Stratford Festival this past week: Does Townsend’s work still maintain its status as a power-punching raucous pop music entity, aided and abetted by McAnuff’s well-documented love of flare and theatrical pyrotechnics or is it merely a dusty old relic of the past, suited only to the tastes of aging hipsters with ill-fitting rugs and giggly youngsters curious about dear old mom and dad’s penchant for the absurd?

The first part of the inquiry may be more to the point, albeit with a reservation or two. The story of the deaf, dumb and blind kid Tommy, in search of salvation via his mastery of the light-flashing, flipper-rattling pinball machine (paying homage to the wasted youth of our late 60s and early 70s), still holds real power.

Even in this annoying prefabricated age of instant celebrity (thank you reality TV), the story of a young child of World War Two, traumatized by his father’s murder of his mother’s love is still fascinating. He descends into total sensory deprivation to become an international superstar merely because of his mastery of an arcade game. He does so without the aid of sight, sound and real perception.

And Townsend’s songs still pack that proverbial punch, particularly the still-haunting "See Me, Feel Me", the rousing anthem-like "Pinball Wizard" and the manically frenetic "The Acid Queen", a blistering ode to hallucinogenic therapy sought out as a cure by Tommy’s parents. Jewelle Blackman does justice to the Tina Turner version in the Russell flick, competing both for vocal screaming rights and perhaps even the longest legs on stage. Yet watching her slink gracelessly after the number ends, into the murky shadows clutching the tools of a heroin addict is both painful and terribly sad.

There are many positives to be showered upon Tommy 2013, largely because the energy of the original text is intact, thanks to a tireless company of actors, dancers and musicians who never seem to sit still for a moment. They get the message out in full volume, leaving the audience presumably bathed in sweat but cheering for more.

Yet one has to wonder if the production would have been even more successful had McAnuff reigned in just a bit of his desire to swamp his creations with never-ending eye-popping effects that takes us all on a video-enhanced journey from the Second World War right through to the ‘60s, accompanied all the while by ear-piercing elements of pure sound and fury.

All of this is admittedly cleverly staged, with both McAnuff and a superior technical crew deserving highest marks for figuratively lifting the roof and walls of the Avon Theatre from its very foundations. But there are moments when one wishes the director’s passion for technical wizardry would give way, at least momentarily, for some solitary scenes of reflection without the aid of all those high priced bells and whistles.

That may be too much to ask and one has to wonder out loud whether McAnuff, Townsend and company are eying another shot along the Great White Way in the Big Apple, proving there is still plenty of room to stage a blockbuster revival.

The cast is certainly first rate. Robert Markus is an intriguing Tommy with a good set of pipes for handling the intricacies of Townshend’s track. Kira Guloien and Jeremy Kushnier are nicely matched as his troubled parents endlessly seeking reasons and ultimately a cure.

Depending on which night it is, either Arden Couturier or Adrienne Ennis will be onboard to tackle the role of the four-year-old Tommy while Conor Bergauer and Joshua Buchwald take turns at playing the lead character as a 10-year-old.

Paul Nolan achieves the unthinkable with brilliance, transforming the thuggish cousin Kevin from a simple brute into a viciously engaging sound and dance man, leading his equally nasty cohorts through some wonderfully engaging moments choreographed by Wayne Cilento.

The only really disconcerting aspect of the production – not just this version but also the album, movie and Broadway presentations – can be found in these lyrics sung in wickedly sleazy fashion by Steve Ross as Uncle Ernie:

I'm your wicked Uncle Ernie
I'm glad you won't see or hear me
As I fiddle about
Fiddle about
Fiddle about !

In the movie the late Who drummer Keith Moon played the role with such intense depravity, there was simply no way one could find a redeeming quality of the character. Yet here he is now, strutting about in comically burlesque fashion, almost becoming a tragic figure of sorts.

Ross is simply brilliant. While a somewhat larger fellow, he moves about with grace, dancing with real authority and singing with unabashed glee (Tommy’s Holiday Camp). But when was a slavishly drunken pedophile like this ever really a symbol of pity or vaudevillian humour?

Wildly different interpretations noted – Moon’s sadistic monster or Ross’ marginally more sympathetic uncle – the troubling mystery of how to treat such a role remains unanswered for some of us.

Certainly not a perfect production, the four curtain calls this particular night demonstrated more than adequately that Tommy will be a seasonal cash cow for the good folk at the Festival and could be back in New York City, before you can score a million points on your personal pinball at home.

Townshend and McAnuff have a winner on their hands – warts and all. Give the kid ***1/2 out of 4 stars.

/  4

Geoff Dale is an Oxford County theatre reviewer and freelance writer/photographer.

Cutline: Robert Markus is pictured with Joshua Buchwald in the foreground. Photo by Don Dixon.

Talbot Centre
The Arts Project - Theatre