Playing that Silver Ball
There was plenty of buzz in the audience for Tommy at Stratford’s Avon Theatre on opening night. Pete Townshend (The Who) and Randy Bachman (The Guess Who), both guitarists extraordinaire, were in the audience. Then the orchestra hits that first loud note of the rock opera, the buzz ends, and the audience is transfixed with the sounds, colours and characters of Tommy. While the story is about a deaf, dumb and blind boy, the powerful rock opera commands full attention and fills the senses.
This musical is based on a concept album Tommy, created by The Who in 1969. Then in 1975 it was made into a movie, with a rock star-studded cast. Finally in 1992 Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff wrote the musical theatre version and Tommy opened in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. They took it to Broadway in 1993. Twenty years later, McAnuff has finished his term as Stratford’s Artistic Director, and he returns to the Avon Theatre to direct Tommy.
The story opens in World War II: Captain Walker is shot down and parachutes over Germany. At home, Mrs. Walker and her little son believe he is dead, so she has a new boyfriend. But Captain Walker survives and as the war ends, he is released from prison camp, returning home to find his wife with her boyfriend. The boyfriend attacks Captain Walker who shoots him in self-defence. Little four-year-old Tommy sees the killing in the mirror, and is traumatized by his parents telling him he didn’t see anything. As the result of the shock, Tommy is left deaf, dumb and blind.
He is sexually abused by his evil Uncle Ernie and bullied by his creepy cousin Kevin. His parents take him to a string of doctors and even an acid addled prostitute to find a cure. But Tommy remains unseeing and mute. And then he discovers pinball – he becomes famous as the deaf, dumb and blind kid who is a pinball wizard. Mrs. Walker, in her frustration with his inability to communicate, smashes the mirror, and then Tommy hears, talks and sees. He abandons his family for fame, but eventually comes home again.
Jeremy Kushnier is excellent as Captain Walker, heading off to war as a carefree young husband, later showing his anxiety with his son’s disabilities. (Note: As of Aug. 10, Stephen Patterson has now taken over the role of Captain Walker) Similarly, Kira Guloien is a weary and frustrated Mrs. Walker. Steve Ross is the suitably pathetic and disgusting Uncle Ernie, and Paul Nolan is frightening as the strange cousin Kevin. Robert Markus is perfect as the 15 year old Tommy. Credit goes to the four children who alternate the roles of 4 year old and 10 year old Tommy. Jewelle Blackman is commanding as the Acid Queen. Jennifer Rider-Shaw is charming as Sally, and has a fun moment when she whips across the stage on a motor-scooter.
The ensemble has great energy, handling many costume changes and personas throughout the night. Wayne Cilento’s choreography is powerful, delivered by dynamic dancers.
Images on the big screens enhance set pieces. The pinball machines, bright costumes, and fast action almost overload the senses, together with the powerful rock music.
It’s thrilling to hear favourite songs such as See Me Feel Me, Listening to You, and Pinball Wizard.
Basically, this production of Tommy is flawless. It is exactly as the creators intended. Pete Townshend made sure the vision matched his music and we can assume Des McAnuff directed it as he and Townshend intended when they wrote the script. With a very talented cast of leads backed by some of Canada’s best in the ensemble, you could not see a better production of Tommy.Tommy continues in repertoire until October 19 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
See a medley from Tommy on video:
Music & lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend & Des McAnuff
Additional music & lyrics by John Entwistle & Keith Moon
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Wayne Cilento
Musical direction by Rick Fox
Performed by Robert Markus, Stephen Patterson replacing Jeremy Kushnier, Kira Guloien, Steve Ross, Paul Nolan et al
Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford
May 30 to October 19, 2013
Reviewed by Mary Alderson