For anyone to review a production of The Who’s Tommy, it is impossible to ignore the only other interpretation of this work ever forged. I am of course referring to Ken Russell’s intensely savage film. It was the first rock opera ever conceived before Hollywood started clamping down on director’s imaginative (and expensive) impulses. Can you imagine Tommy being made today and looking even remotely similar? It was this fusion of Mr. Russell’s imagination during a very specific period in American film that, for better or for worse, created the imprimatur on this mythically iconic story.
Tommy is the story of an English boy whose father fights in WWII. The father is presumed dead during an aerial battle and his mother then takes up with another man. The husband, having survived the war, returns home enraged to find he has been replaced. Tommy’s father is murdered by the boyfriend and is told by his mother: “You didn’t see it! You didn’t hear it!”. As a result of the shock of seeing his father murdered and then told, essentially, to lie to his very own senses, Tommy becomes deaf, mute and blind as the horrific story of self-discovery begins.
Mr. Russell makes you feel every painful turn like pins in your eyes because he was communicating an entire society’s angst as it reinvented itself during the 60s. Who can forget those horrifying scenes where the defenseless Tommy is repeatedly tortured, abused, and molested by those upon whom he is supposed to rely? Or Ann-Margret’s sexual franks and beans orgy? And the awful finale where upon his mother and step-father are brutally murdered at the hands of an angry cult-mob? But without those scenes of subversion (anti-authoritarian, anti-consumerism and anti-religious respectively) and their visceral impact, we are left with a rather cold morality play; a sterilized plea for reform without the sharp edges.
And yet, this show is still wonderful.
Shane Ray directed The Who’s Tommy with an eye for fast-paced precision and it paid off tremendously. He was battling a musical that threw some unwieldy exposition in his path and Mr. Ray riposted with intelligence and skill. (The use of the rolling hospital curtains provided an elegant and functional solution.) Ellyn Marie Marsh’s energetic choreography was of particular distinction. Her seamless work filled in what the narrative obscured, giving the show a vibrant, dynamic and specific framework that illuminated and elevated the music. Musical Director, Ben Prince, was not merely a passive figure furnishing underscoring, but a presence on stage. His vocal guidance to the other musicians gave this production a very appreciated sense of communality; that they were all in this together commanding the story.
The performers deserve a great deal of credit, admirably filling the gaps in the story the authors clearly did not concern themselves with. (Such as the whole Uncle Ernie/child molester in the family plotline which dissolved into a forgiving pat on the shoulder at the finale). Zachary Franczak’s Tommy was both honest and endearing while his parents (Emily Wade and Cameron Weston) did the best they could in roles that ultimately begged more questions about their parental aptitude than were answered. And, of course, Leanne Borghesi as the Acid Queen in a role created solely for an actress to steal the show and Ms. Borghesi did not disappoint. She brought both Tommy and the house down.
While I am obviously not a huge fan of the changes made in the transition from film to stage, I will offer this personal observation. I saw Tommy in my early teens and had nightmares for a decade. Sitting next to me at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday night was a thirteen year-old boy and his mother who clapped and sang along with the show from beginning to end. Maybe Mr. Russell’s film had a great many things to say and I believe they were appreciated in the time he said them. Maybe it’s also true that you can say those same things and leave the nightmares for real life? Lord knows we have enough of them. In the meantime, go see this show if you can.