‘Feel me, touch me, heal me …” We’re with you, Pinball Wizard.
Tommy’s feelings of alienation and disconnect are definitely relatable in the Stratford Festival’s cold revival of this rock opera based on the 1969 concept album by The Who. It’s an impressively expensive but unfeeling production that will leave your emotions almost entirely untouched. (And you can forget about any healing.)
Directed by former artistic director Des McAnuff as in its 1993 premiere on Broadway, Tommy tells the loosely structured story of a British boy who becomes “deaf, dumb and blind” after he witnesses his father killing his mother’s lover upon returning from the Second World War. As if that’s not enough trauma for the young lad, he also has to endure molestation at the hands of his Uncle Ernie (Steve Ross, surprisingly sympathetic) and bullying by his Cousin Kevin (an enjoyably wild Paul Nolan, channelling a demonic version of Archie Andrews).
Eventually, Tommy reconnects with the world around him through an uncanny ability to play pinball, his subsequent full recovery from his autistic state making him a media celebrity and then a kind of modern messiah.
McAnuff’s 20th anniversary rethink of his original hit production certainly has its visual appeal. David Woolard’s monochromatic costumes bring us bright blue Bobbies and mustard-yellow medical doctors, while Sean Nieuwenhuis’s projections take us from images of the Second World War to their subsequent regurgitation in post-war pop culture.
Choreographer Wayne Cliento’s dance routines are energetic, but empty, however, while McAnuff’s blocking of the story is often static or mechanical. Sure, Tommy, in the words of the song Pinball Wizard, “stands like a statue / becomes part of the machine” – but must so many of the other characters, as well?
Pinball is songwriter Pete Townshend’s metaphor for rock ’n’ roll – and the second act of Tommy says something, albeit nothing terribly interesting, about stardom as a secular substitute for religion. It’s difficult to tell what the rest of the mystifying mumbo-jumbo in this musical is really on about, however.
Mistreatment of children is certainly a prominent theme. McAnuff’s treatment of it, however, seems superficial and slight at a time when bullying is national news and shocking abuse scandals have exploded at institutions from the BBC to the Catholic Church.
The depiction of Tommy’s betrayal at the hands of his uncle is certainly bizarrely handled – conjured by a projected image of a spinning French horn and a few quick light flashes as Ernie sings, “Down with your bedclothes, up with your nightshirt / Fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about.”
When he originally brought Tommy to the stage, McAnuff helped shape an ending that emphasized forgiveness – but, especially when it comes the molesting uncle, the hugs and handshakes seem awfully perfunctory. The material now cries out for a darker approach than this one, which vacillates between a cartoonish quality and New Age symbolism of floating windows, doors and mirrors.
McAnuff has returned to the piece with newer technology at his disposal, but much of his over-synced staging seems a rehash – of his much more involving Jesus Christ Superstar of two years ago, that is. Instead of a messiah floating out over the audience on a gray metal plank, we have the pinball wizard flying through the air on a gray metal pinball machine.
There is, of course, the music to enjoy. The Who’s classics – I’m Free; See Me, Feel Me – are all here and sung pleasantly enough by the Stratford ensemble under Rick Fox’s musical direction. Only Jeremy Kushnier, as Tommy’s father Captain Walker, finds both emotional and dramatic resonance in his delivery of them, however. (His repeated question: “Tommy, can you hear me?” hits the heart’s flippers like nothing else in the production.)
Robert Markus – who plays the adult version of Tommy, opposite younger actors as his four-year-old and 10-year-old incarnations – is a smooth and soft cipher by contrast. His forays into vocal gymnastics sound like technical exercises rather than expressions of emotion. (Among the other leads, Jennifer Rider-Shaw has appealing spunk as super-fan Sally Simpson, while Kira Guloien is a clinical Mrs Walker.)
I must confess my bias at this point, though: I’m not a huge fan of The Who’s album Tommy. Hits aside, it is a little repetitive, has a fair bit of filler and the lyrics are at times laughable. (Tommy’s got “such a supple wrist,” does he?)
Is it heretical to suggest that revered status of the album might have had much to do with its release in 1969 – and that the subsequent success of the 1990s musical production had something to do with a certain demographic hitting the Broadway-buying age? In this production, it’s hard to see the appeal – and not to see Tommy’s deafness, dumbness and blindness as merely a metaphor for the self-absorption of the Baby Boomer generation.