The Who's Tommy
The White Theatre
In tracing the history of The Who's rock opera "Tommy", it is interesting to consider it in terms of staging. When the band first began to perform it as part of their tour, they made no attempt at staging whatsoever, just playing the songs like any other set. In the fullness of time, stage adaptations came along, including one in 1971 by the Seattle Opera, in which Bette Midler, of all people, doubled as Mrs. Walker and The Acid Queen. More elaborate stage and orchestral presentations led to the inevitable film, which – under the hand of Ken Russell – reached a delirious climax of over-the-top staging and presentation. Now with the 1993 rendition, we have come back to simple, almost austere, staging. "The Who's Tommy", as it is now called, is an older, wiser tale than was told in 1969, and it has grown jaded in the telling.
The Jewish Community Center premiered its production Saturday night to a full house, with Robert Hingula as the adult Tommy, and Ryan Sanford and Darcie Hingula playing the younger incarnations. Staging was minimal: a multilevel scaffolding providing most of the background action, with occasional props being flown in or out as needed. Occasional images were projected onto the back screen, but due to the lighting these were almost completely washed out. Music was provided by a live band, and the performance came in at a little over two hours, with intermission.
The story takes place after World War II; Captain Walker (Chris Gleeson), sent to war shortly after his wedding, returns from a POW camp to find his wife (Vanessa Harper) and son in the company of another man. A fight breaks out, during which the lover is killed. Desperate to cover themselves, they inform their son "You didn't see it / You didn't hear it / You'll never tell nobody, never in your life". The father is later acquitted on grounds of self-defense, but young Tommy, scarred from the event, remains in a semi-catatonic state, unable to pull himself away from the mirror in which he witnessed the murder.
We watch as Tommy's parents put him through a battery of tests, trying to cure him, even in desperation seeking out a street hustler who swears his woman can "Bring eyesight to the blind." Meanwhile, Tommy finds himself victim of those around him, including his alcoholic "Uncle Ernie" (Bob Kohler) and cousin Kevin, the school bully (Brent Nanney). The latter eventually drags him off to the youth center to show him off to his friends and, tiring of him, parks him in front of a pinball machine. Something in the machine triggers a reaction in Tommy, and he begins to play, quickly mastering the game and handily defeating the local champ.
In the second act, his parents, bolstered by the mysterious reaction to the pinball machine, redouble their efforts to cure him. They are told the problems are mental, not physical; and in a fit of rage, Mrs. Walker smashes Tommy's mirror, setting him free. The rest of the play follows Tommy the guru, preaching to his teeny-bop followers, guiding them to enlightenment. And this is where the biggest changes manifest: in the original, he put them though his own experiences, hoping they would achieve enlightenment the same way ("Put on your blindfolds / Stick in your earplugs / You know where to put the cork.") In this new telling, however, he only wants to make them understand and treasure what they already have ("Why would you want to be more like me? / For fifteen years I was waiting for what you've already got.") The hangers-on, denied their messiah, leave in a huff, leaving Tommy with his family.
The JCC production is a solid one, and ultimately satisfying to any fan of the original. The cast are all solid singers, and very comfortable on stage. The three Tommys are to be commended, particularly the younger ones, who mostly bring in a deadpan performance that must have been difficult to maintain at times, with all the chaos around them. Buster Keaton would have been proud. We also personally enjoyed Nanney's Cousin Kevin, and noted several members of the ensemble with particularly strong voices. No real weak spots were detected. The live band did an excellent job performing the music.
If there was anything to complain about, it was more to the material than the performance. As mentioned, the story has changed somewhat, and some of the lyrics with it. For someone who listened to the album backwards and forwards in their youth, some of the changes are unexpected, and a bit jarring. Also, the Act I closer, "Pinball Wizard," seemed to this reviewer a trifle understaged. It is undoubtedly the best-known song from the album, and somehow it seemed to be not quite what it could have been, not to mention the fact they left out a good verse or so. But this is minor, and simply a matter of personal preference.
All in all, the cast and crew have done an excellent job on this production. Not quite up to Broadway, but nevertheless entertaining and provocative and marvelously done. The Jewish Community Center has given us an interesting and enjoyable season thus far, and it's nice to see the trend continuing. While the story isn't quite the psychedelic whirlwind fable we grew up with, it's still worth viewing. The story, like Tommy himself, has grown up, and we are all the better for it.