Review: TOMMY

by Lynn on June 6, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend. Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Directed by Des McAnuff. Set by John Arnone. Costumes by David C. Woolard.  Choreography by Wayne Cilento. Lighting by Howell Binkley. Sound by Andrew Keister. Projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis. Starring: Joshua Buckwald, Arden Couturier, Kira Guloien, Jeremy Kushnier, Robert Marcus, Paul Nolen, Steve Ross

A bit of background. Pete Townshend of The Who wrote TOMMY  as a concept album in 1969 in the form of a rock opera. It was probably the first time that phrase—rock opera—was used. It was then revisited by Townshend and Des McAnuff  who both wrote the book for it and created the musical that McAnuff also directed and played Broadway in 1992. It won the Tony Award for best musical among others. It played here in Toronto in 1995 with McAnuff directing, where I saw it.

The musical takes place in England between 1941-1963. Captain Walker has to leave his pregnant wife to go off to fight in WWII. She gives birth to their son Tommy while he’s away. Captain Walker is missing in action and presumed dead and over time Mrs. Walker finds another love. Then Captain Walker miraculously returns home to find his wife in the arms of this guy. She is delighted to see her husband. Captain Walker meets his four year old son Tommy and is delighted. The lover is not at all happy. A fight ensues. Captain Walker shoots the lover. Both parents forcibly tell Tommy that he is not to speak about this; he didn’t see anything; and he didn’t hear anything. They repeat this with more shaking of this kid. Tommy takes them at their word. After that he doesn’t speak at all, gives the impression he doesn’t hear anything or see at all. It’s not autism. It’s post traumatic stress disorder.

As time goes by, Tommy is ‘fiddled with’ by his ‘Uncle Ernie’; bullied by his cousin Kevin;  taken by his parents to endless doctors who poke and prod him trying to find out what’s wrong with him. Then he finds his calling when he’s put in front of a pinball machine. He’s a wiz at it. A champion. He becomes famous for it.  Then a miracle happens and he gets his senses back. He becomes a rock star and ultimately his public deserts him because he’s ordinary.

Fast forward to this year and the Stratford Festival where Des McAnuff has directed TOMMY again taking advantage of technological advances since he first did it in 1992. The production is a bombardment of loud music; projections, relentless psychedelic lighting effects and constantly moving set pieces and props.  There is not one surface on either a wall or prop that does not have a blinking, flashing light on it over which might be a projection or some other kind of distraction. Those with epilepsy beware.

The whole effect is distancing, cold and uninvolving. You can’t get engaged by any characters because of all that flashing distraction. The cast perform their hearts out—they have to to be noticed. As Captain Walker and his wife, Jeremy Kushnier and Kira Guloien respectively have strong voices, but even with miking they are often drowned out by the orchestra as is the rest of the cast. As the Acid Queen, Jewelle Blackman is incomprehensible because she screams and puts such a spin on her words you can’t tell what she’s saying. As Cousin Kevin, Paul Nolan is nicely dangerous.

And while McAnuff has said that strides in technology will allow him to improve upon the production of Tommy, that’s not what he’s done. It’s the same old set of scaffolding, moving props and lighting effects that he’s used for The Jersey Boys and Jesus Christ Superstar. The same old flash with little substance. And certainly no re-thinking. For all that frantically fouetteing of the poking, prodding doctors, they never really say they can’t find anything wrong with him. Irony is lost here.  It’s interesting to note that there is a Musical Staging Consultant listed in the program (Tracey Langan Corea) which leads me to believe that the staging is recreated but not rethought. There is substance in the story but McAnuff has ignored it.

If I was to describe this production with one word it would be “quaint.” Truly. TOMMY  is quaint in its being steadfastly mired in its old fashioned notion that dazzle and flash was the future of musical theatre. That lasted a nano second. The story and telling it well has always been what theatre is about, musical or otherwise. Since 1992 musical theatre has moved on. Audiences have too. Townshend has reflected a troubling world in TOMMY that still fills our news: pedophilia, bullying, child abuse, drug abuse, abuse of the disabled, but none of it is explored in this ‘revival.’ Typical McAnuff. Sad.

TOMMY plays at the Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival until October 19.

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