The Who’s Tommy, music and lyrics by Pete Townsend, book by Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff, with additional music and lyrics by John Entwhistle and Keith Moon. Directed by Eric Hill.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"His musical dreams ain’t so bad."
The Who’s Tommy, way back in 1969, was the first rock opera. It originally made its impression on the world in a two-record stereo LP set in a double flap open box that seemed like it was designed by M.C. Escher. It was blue and so was the music and so was the story it told...with just a bit of lavender on the side. Tommy, the pinball wizard, deaf, dumb and blind but a master at the game, a celebrity, a star. The opera held so much promise for people, young people, baby boomers so-called, that it’s cult was as wide as the world, its impact overwhelming.
Later it became a Canadian ballet, then a Broadway show, then a Ken Russell film, and each time there was the same sort of conviction laid down for new audiences: this show, this opera, is for you, just you. You can be free, you can be reborn in your own image, an image of your own making.
" See me, Feel me, Touch me, Heal me" it screams and you know the show is talking to you.
No other rock opera has ever touched this one in terms of its direct relationship with its admirers. "Evita" is political nonsense and "Jesus Christ, Superstar" just so much religious pap. "Tommy" is us, was us, will be us. That is what makes it what it is.
In Pittsfield, MA, at the historic Colonial Theatre the Berkshire Theatre Festival is presenting its second edition of "Tommy" and this one is the real one. I remember enjoying the production at the company’s Unicorn Theatre a few years ago, even though I had reservations about the director’s concepts. I always remember enjoying this show. But, as I said, this one is the real one. This one achieves greatness in spite of some overwhelming obstacles.
At the Unicorn it was an intimate and frightening experience. In the small town vastness of this current space the show becomes a spectacular, special effects masterpiece. This is due in part to its cast, not a clinker among them.
First and foremost there is Tommy himself, played by Randy Harrison. The "Queer as Folk" star has made a home on the Berkshire stages in such diverse works as "Equus," "Amadeus," and "Waiting for Godot." Now he takes on this major musical role and simply blows out the back of our heads with his strength, lyrical abilities and good looks combined. He is in full command of his character’s silent quirks and final abilities to rouse passions and genuine love. If we gave out awards in these parts for performances he would be a likely contender such an accolade.
Right behind him in line for a "Berky" would be James Barry as Captain Walker, Tommy’s father. This is a return to the role for Barry, who played it here the last time. He is dynamite, darkly handsome and threatening and overwhelmingly in love with his damaged son. It is a moving realization of the role.
Jenny Powers plays Mrs. Walker. Her voice is magnificent, her diction superb and her acting vibratingly real. It is almost as though she had been playing this part her entire life. When she and Barry sing the duet "I Believe My Own Eyes" you can feel the tension, feel the love, feel the need they share.
Similarly the Acid Queen Gypsy, sung by Angela Robinson was terrific. Clad in David Murin’s acid green gown she is a shimmering, frighteningly attractive vixen with danger pervading her being. Christopher Gurr’s Uncle Ernie is decent realization if slightly less dangerous than he ought to be while Ben Rosenblatt is a smarmy and obviously two-faced Cousin Kevin.
The two ensemble players who portray Tommy as a youngster were, I hope, Paige Scott and Connor McNinch. These two very capable players are not properly listed in the program - an oversight for which they are owed big time apologies - and they should be for they added greatly to the texture of the show from start to finish.
Eric Hill and choreographer Gerry McIntyre have moved this show in and out of the rock concert, rock opera and Broadway musical genres with alacrity. There is never a moment that seems out of step, out of place or out of its mind. The seamlessness of their work is part of the power of the show. Likewise the projections designed by Shawn E. Boyle add so much to the picture that it is a shame not to be able to spend more time with them, but the show on stage compels your attention.
One objection and only one: the sound levels, in a full house, were just too much. Once you take the gain up on the band, a rock sextet that played wonderfully, you have to add more sound for the singers and the end result is sometimes chaos for the ears and mind. In this opera you want to hear the words, need to hear them. Riding the levels so high doesn’t increase the enjoyment, it only defeats the purpose of Tommy, exposing too much at too great a level. And this production doesn’t need volume to impress, it has that value going for it in its entire production.
Randy Harrison as Tommy with his youngest self; photo: Christy Wright
Jenny Powers and James Barry (r); photo: Christy Wright
The Who’s Tommy plays at the Colonial Theatre on South Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 16. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.