november 2016 | Volume 149
THE WHO’S TOMMY
Music & lyrics by Pete Townsend
Book by Peter Townsend & Des McAnuff
Additional music & lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Renegade Arts Co.
The Shop Theatre, 125 E. 2nd Ave.
I was in graduate school in 1969 when the Who’s rock opera Tommy was released on a double-LP. The young prof in my Contemporary Literature class proclaimed it one of the literary masterpieces of the decade. That seemed like an exaggeration at the time and even more so now. It’s still a fascinating story, though – part trauma narrative, part postwar parable – and the music has absolutely held up. Pete Townshend, one of the geniuses of Sixties rock, wrote a lot of great songs for the album in a variety of styles. I own the LP and the CD, and many of those songs are on my iPod Preferred list. The music, especially the vocals by Townshend and Roger Daltrey, continues to echo in my brain.
The stage musical, developed in the 1990s following the 1975 film, fills significant gaps in Tommy’s story. The musical shows us that Tommy is born during WWII. His father, an RAF captain, ends up in a German POW camp. His mother, thinking her husband is dead, takes a boyfriend. When Captain Walker returns home after the war, he confronts the boyfriend and shoots him. Young Tommy witnesses it all. When his parents tell him (the entire story is sung), “you didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it … you’ll never say nothing at all,” Tommy turns deaf, dumb and blind.
As Tommy grows up he’s sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie, bullied by his cousin Kevin and other boys, and taken to a variety of doctors and even a prostitute, the Acid Queen, by his parents, none of whom can cure him. He develops an extraordinary talent for pinball. Sometime in the 1960s, in frustration, his mother smashes the mirror into which Tommy constantly stares, and suddenly he’s cured. For a while he becomes a kind of guru of the commune until, in the confusing ending, he appears to retreat into individualism, rejecting his followers who turn against him.
The hit singles from the album represent the pillars of the story and still hold up as great songs: “See Me, Feel Me, (Touch Me, Heal Me)” is Tommy’s refrain trapped inside his trauma; “Pinball Wizard” is the up-tempo celebration of his remarkable compensatory talent; and “I’m Free” is a Sixties anthem of personal liberation. The entire story can be seen as a parable of postwar trauma, repression and conformity leading directly to the various confusing and sometimes conflicting liberation ideologies of the Sixties.
The Sixties seems to be where Renegade Arts producer Jim Buckshon’s heart is. The Who’s Tommy follows Renegade’s successful staging of Hair last summer. Neither of these shows has been produced in Vancouver very often—Tommy, especially, is difficult to play and sing—so these are welcome additions to our city’s increasingly rich musical theatre scene.
First of all, kudos to musical director Adam Da Ros for the excellent vocal harmonies he’s arranged, for his own keyboard work, and for his band: especially Stanley Tsang on guitar, as well as Philip Lo on bass and Jamison Ko on drums. Those three have to replicate the playing of Townshend, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon respectively, and that’s no small task. The dozens of costumes provided by Marilyn LaVac-Rapanos for the cast of 19, spanning three decades of radically changing styles, are also very impressive.
There are a few obvious standouts in the large young cast, including Franklin Cottrell as Tommy and Mark Wolf as his father, both offering up strong vocal work, especially Cottrell, whose Tommy sings in a wide range from soft falsetto to belting. I also really liked Tim Howe, whose acting shines in Uncle Ernie’s two featured songs. The show’s other strengths are its ensemble numbers. The vocal power of the ensemble is greater than many of the individual singers who are not mic’d and sometimes hard to hear over the sound of the band.
I have mixed feelings about Anna Kuman’s choreography, and there are some problems with the lighting of the area above the stage where action sometimes takes place in relative darkness. Otherwise, I very much admired Chris Lam’s direction, his imaginative staging—including good use of mirroring involving Cottrell and two younger versions of Tommy played by brothers Joshua and Jeremiah Vezina—and his fluid movement of the action between time frames and places, aided by changing images on a small video screen.
Although this production lacks some of the virtuoso qualities required to make the show really soar, it’s a great effort—especially for a largely pre-professional cast—and I’m thrilled to be taken back once more to that remarkable era of the late 1960s when everything seemed up for grabs.
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