A high-energy cast tore through just over two hours of the virtually all-music musical, which lived only as a concept album from 1969 until 1992 when it was fully staged in theatrical form. Guitarist Pete Townshend with Kit Lambert conceived and wrote the score and it bore the title “rock opera” that Townshend had coined for an early extended song by the group. Tommy attacked the big questions head-on and helped define the musical idiom of a generation, perhaps even that generation itself. But if you think it’s now a period piece, you would be wrong.
Co-directors Justin Been and Gary F. Bell’s interpretation of the story of the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid,” the “pinball wizard,” speaks to today as much as it did to the turbulent era that spawned it. Bell graciously cedes most of the credit to Been, whose career has been a pleasure to watch develop. This is his best effort yet, and he’s been good ever since his first show. He explains in his program notes that he chose a style called “steampunk” to showcase and update the piece and adds that the term is difficult to define. A PBS short film in its series “Off Book,” refers to the idiom as being grounded in a world that never happened. It is Victorian in look but frozen in time, as if the world had been untainted by the Industrial Revolution.
Steampunk is associated with Gyro Gearloose-like inventions that take the place of actual machinery. For example, at one point, Tommy’s head is covered in a contraption made of a bowl and colander to represent a tool to allow doctors to see inside his brain. “We’re in a time where steam power is mixed with Tesla power, and they’re still beautiful. They’re still art,” says Joey Marsocci (aka Dr. Grymm), an steampunk arthist himself. Part of the aesthetic of steampunk is repurposing items into objects d’art, and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes fit within those parameters. They are vaguely Victorian/Edwardian and many appear to be altered from those she created for last season’s The Visit, hence, artistic recyling. Makeup (by Sarah Hitzel) is exaggerated; movement is stylized.
Justin Been and James Volmert, Jr. designed a set in which spinning gears reflected in projections hang above the cast who use an amalgam of freestyle, traditional and modern dance to create free yet coordinated interludes that capture a notion of the sci fi world H.G. Wells created, rendering Tommy, the show, a kind of “timeless machine.” Central to the set is the mirror where Tommy confronts his damaged self until the moment of epiphany when the glass is broken by his frustrated mother (“Smash the Mirror”) who, with his father, has tried to “fix” her son for years and is ready to give up. But in whatever style the message is conveyed, a part of it remains: Be careful what you wish for. Whatever you gain, concomitantly, you will lose, as Mrs. Walker learns when Tommy is healed (“I’m Free”).
The plot is simple: young woman (Paula Stoff Dean) meets dashing Captain Walker (Jeffrey M. Wright) and marries him (Kay Love as a minister officiates) on the eve of his departure for World War II. This action takes place during the Overture. Mrs. Walker is pregnant when she receives word of the captain’s death and soon delivers a son (“It’s a Boy”). Audrey Manalang is an adorable 4-year-old Tommy whose last words are “Happy Birthday, Mother,” before the silence that is about to descend for 13 years. Mrs. Walker is canoodling with her boyfriend (C.E. Fifer) when her husband, alive after all, does return home. A fight ensues, the boyfriend is killed, and Tommy’s parents repeatedly tell him that he saw and heard nothing. Something in his psyche takes that exhortation literally and shuts down.
Years pass and Tommy is 10 (now played by the amazing Braden Phillips) when he is molested by his drunk Uncle Ernie (Josh Douglas), another psychic blow. At this age, he also first demonstrates his amazing prowess at pinball. The entire ensemble plays various medical people to whom Tommy is taken over the years, but no doctor can find anything physiologically wrong with him. His desperate father even visits the “Gypsy,” (“Acid Queen” an addicted prostitute played by Anna Skidis) who offers sexual healing , but that also fails. Tommy’s parents are on the verge of institutionalizing him when he breaks through that shattered mirror to a fully integrated identity.
Tommy has been tormented all his life by his “friends” led by his Cousin Kevin (Ryan E. Glosemeyer). But while vilified and bullied, he remains passive. When he emerges from his fugue state, his tormenters become his followers, taking literally his once-silent mantra “Touch Me, Feel Me. Heal Me.” Townshend’s sense of the absurdity of being treated like a god for playing rock music is transmogrified into an even sillier trope: Tommy is idolized because he is the pinball wizard. Crowds come out to see him play, women want him, and men want to be him. One night, however, he realizes how empty fame really is when a girl is hurt in the crowd at one of his appearances (“Sally Simpson.”) He longs for a return to normalcy, and while the fans follow him home as if he’s the Pied Piper, they are fickle and fame proves to be, indeed, fleeting.
The artistic team is just about the best St. Louis has to offer. JT Ricroft choreographed, and his human pinball number is one highlight among many. Tyler Duenow is responsible for the perfect lighting choices, and the musical direction is by Chris Petersen whom audiences will recognize from his many appearances as director the New Line Theatre band. He is at the top of his game here, as are the musicians in his group who are placed prominently onstage. Yet, as good as they are, they fade into the background, and in some bit of theatrical magic, we continue to hear them, but we don’t really see them, which is, of course, appropriate for this show. Sound problems have plagued the space since the company moved in a few seasons back, but as Bell tells us in his welcome speech, they are being addressed constantly, and while there are still spatters, pops, and the occasional swallowed lyric, it’s a smaller issue than you might expect.
It’s difficult to pick standouts from the cast because they are all impressive singers, good dancers, and they have the ability to maintain a laser focus throughout that impressed me. In one inspired bit, the men leap from the apron to the floor to personify the projections of parachuting soldiers behind them as they hurtle down the spaces between the seats. Stray Dog has always made effective use of its aisles, but here, they are a real extension of the stage, and as the troupe repeatedly enters and exits, we can feel their footsteps in our own bodies, just as the music inhabits us. A few shout-outs are in order though, and Rodriguez gets the first one. His voice displays range and quality. His expressions and movements are spot on, and he really does convey the charisma that comes to define Tommy Walker. Dean and Wright are also perfectly cast—both are beautiful, vocally compatible performers, plus they are also fine actors.
Historical and contemporary references abound in this time-out-of-mind staging: Christ-images abound, and he was the one to whom Tommy was compared when the character first blasted from countless baby boomer stereo speakers. A messianic Tommy was also the focus of the 1975 movie, the music’s first visual depiction. But anybody who has endured the struggle to achieve fame and then begins questioning the value of the battle to the top after becoming a prisoner is represented. The public figure who kept going through my mind as I watched, especially when Tommy, wearing a hat, stands silently, head inclined as though in prayer as he gradually emerges from a fog effect, is Michael Jackson. He, like Tommy was a lost boy who made it to the top, but he could never find his way back home. He was the self-styled “man in the mirror,” and the image became his tragic reality, as his body dysmorphic disorder starkly demonstrated. Tommy’s fate is less cruel, but an awakening nonetheless for both character and audience.
As this impressive achievement makes clear, Stray Dog isn’t a puppy any longer. The last couple of seasons have shown great artistic reach and growth. The Who’s “Tommy” is, quite simply, the best musical I’ve seen in 2011, and one of the very best I’ve ever been privileged to witness. A show like this is why I go to theatre, and I hope you won’t miss it because it is truly extraordinary. And, all of the foregoing analysis aside, I could have written a much shorter review of this show. It would simply say, “WOW!”
The members of the cast not recognized above but entirely deserving of mention are Lindsey Jones, Andréa Kimberling, Austin Pierce, and Sarah Porter (also playing Sally Simpson).
Band besides Peterson on Keyboard is composed of Sean Lanier (drums), Michael Monsey (electric bass), Adam Rugo (guitar 1) and Sallie De Maine Cole (synthesizer).
The Who’s “Tommy” runs through Oct. 22 at Stray Dog Theatre. You may visit www.straydogtheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT