Beforehand, I knew just a little about The Who’s Tommy. Obviously I’d heard of the band and its music, and knew Tommy was also a concept album and a film. I could also sing scraps of “Pinball Wizard,” its most well known song. I was an undergrad in 1995 when the Canadian production landed at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, and by sheer force of repetition, the TV commercials embedded lyrics in my brain.
Growing up in post–WWII Britain, young Tommy is left catatonic after witnessing a murder involving his parents, who browbeat him into remaining silent. Unresponsive as a result, he suffers cruelties from those around him. Before he finally regains his ability to interact with the outside world, he discovers a talent for playing pinball which brings it to his feet.
To be clear, the biggest criticisms I have stem from the story as it was conceived, not this production in particular. I suppose they’d be best directed to Pete Townshend, and he’s unlikely to be concerned. Given the success of the musical, still being mounted 27 years after its premiere, and a two year Broadway run with over 900 performances, Tommy has plenty of credibility. It has the cachet of a famous rock band, a great poster, and a memorable signature guitar riff. Its Broadway run garnered ten Tony Award nominations and four wins, among other accolades. Its original London production gathered over a half dozen Olivier Award nominations and wins.
So it’s a good bet for a community theatre, although challenging to mount. I’m always amazed at what HTI accomplishes, layering action, stacking performance space, and tucking the band into place like a theatrical game of Tetris. They do it with admirable choreography and what must be exhaustive prep; there’s not a misstep among such a large ensemble. Kudos to director and choreographer Bethany Charters, stage manager Nicole Airdrie, and set designer Rick Rivait
For me, the plot of Tommy is thin, drawn out in some places and patchy in others. There’s significant lead up to the trauma Tommy witnesses but, in Act Two, a rapid sketching of Tommy’s success, motivations, rise and fall as a pinball and pop culture superstar. There are interesting threads about how we create, glorify, and then ultimately turn on those we make ‘stars.’ Popularity and influence can be fickle, and the mob can turn on an individual whether he’s a pinball whiz or a strange little ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid.’ But these threads seem glossed over.
The ending is most boggling. When Tommy is reunited with his family, I wondered how we managed to get to such a ‘happily ever after.’ I was jarred by the abuse to which Tommy is subjected. Neither parent would win a Parent of the Year award, given their (well intentioned but) horrifying actions to set in motion and then attempt to cure Tommy’s plight. Creepy Uncle Ernie (played by Matt Moore with a great balance of the sinister and mundane) deserved a jail cell for his child molesting aspirations, not a hug. Cousin Kevin (played menacingly by Devin France) deserved some comeuppance for his bullying, not a forgiving thump on the back.
“Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,”and “I’m Free” stand out whereas other songs are forgettable. But, as always at HTI, the music is excellently performed. Under the direction of Christopher Bee, the band has impeccable timing and note perfect delivery. That guitar riff in “Pinball Wizard” succeeded in raising the little hairs on my forearms!
The entire cast does a capable job, singing with commitment and moving with practised ease. It’s always a treat to hear Richelle Tavernier’s robust vocals, and she pulls double duty as ‘The Gypsy’ and show producer. While the costuming is mostly solid, one performer has been given a horrid ponytailed wig that is unfortunately very distracting.
Fittingly, it’s the performers embodying ‘Tommy’ that stand out most, particularly grown up Tommy (Eric Gibson). He has confidence and composure that is compelling to watch, and it comes as no surprise to read he has three years of musical theatre and at least as many productions to his credit. He’s also the lead singer in a band; it comes across in the power and control he exhibits in his vocals.
Both young Tommys must be mentioned, not simply because they are children. Siblings Nola (Tommy, age 4) and Izzy Skinner (Tommy, age 10) show remarkable control over their bodies and facial expressions as they are hoicked around like mannequins, not to mention when other actors scream, poke, and gesture in their faces. Tommy is supposed to be catatonic, and a lot rides on these younger performers. They show amazing restraint. It also took me a while to realize they weren’t actually little boys!
When I saw The Who’s Tommy last Saturday afternoon, there appeared to be only 2–3 seats left empty, and it’s been noted on social media that tickets are going fast for the entire run. V
The Who’s Tommy
Continues May 17-18 and 23-25, 8 PM
and May 19, 2 PM
Hamilton Theatre Inc.
140 MacNab St. North
Tickets: Adult: $25 and $27; Senior/Students: $22 and $24
Buy online: www.hamiltontheatre.com,
or call 905-522-3032