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Friday, 31 May 2013

Tommy: An Embarrassment of Technological Riches

Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff; additional music and lyrics by John Entwhistle and Keith Moon

Directed by Des McAnuff; Musical Direction by Rick Fox; Choreography by Wayne Cilento

Designed by John Arnone and David C. Wollard; Lighting design by Howell Binkley; Sound design by Andre Keister; Projection design by Sean Nieuwenhuis

The story: Rendered deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing a murder as a young child, Tommy Walker endures more trauma at the hands of various family members but nevertheless becomes a legend in his own time when it is discovered he is a wizard at the game of pinball.

Originally a 1969 concept album by The Who, then a rock opera in 1971, then a movie in 1975, and later again re-conceived by Des McAnuff into the Broadway sensation of 1993 (winning five of the ten Tony Awards for which it was nominated), Tommy is the voice of a generation. One very specific generation, whose parents came through WWII, and witnessed the mod movement before becoming the children of Woodstock.
Robert Markus as Tommy (centre) with members of the cast.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
Being of a generation after that, neither the music nor story resonates with this reviewer, and I cannot comment on or compare it to the versions of it that came before. What I can ask, is why, when the trauma Tommy witnesses is a direct result of war, does the story gloss over the horror of war? Why, when the story was revamped in 1993, does it gloss over pedophilia which at the time was finally coming to light as a blight on society? And why, when Tommy is supposed to suffer from a traumatically-induced catatonic state, would the current production give him a rocking tic that indicates he instead is on the Autism spectrum, a biologically-based condition?

Given the hugely enthusiastic response of opening night, however, I'm guessing the story of Tommy is secondary to its staging, which is an embarrassment of technological riches.  Visually, the production is stunning. Literally. As in, the many gun-shots, flashing lights, projections and fireworks are gloriously jaw-dropping, but renders enviable at times the sensory-deprivation from which Tommy suffers. (Ironic, wot?) The multiple projections, inspired by the pop art of Gilbert & George,  are colour-saturated and gorgeous in their own right, but they have the unfortunate effect of drawing one's focus from the live actors on stage, giving the whole production more the feel of a live music video than live theatre. There's theatre, then there is blatant theatricality, and Tommy belongs to the latter category. (Insert wistful sigh.)

From left: Conor Bergauer as ten-year-old Tommy, Kira Guloien
as Mrs. Walker and Jeremy Kushnier as Captain Walker in Tommy.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
The actors work their collective tushes off, however. Wayne Cilento's aggressive, almost violent choreography is all angles and stomps and has dancers popping on an off pinball-platforms with frenetic energy. Kira Guloien and Jeremy Kushnier portray Mrs. and Captain Walker as haunted by guilt throughout the production, making them quite sympathetic, and their voices are well-matched (Mr. Kushnier must have been born to do rock opera). Paul Nolan's Cousin Kevin is a crowd-pleasing thug with a heart of gold, who with GabrielAntonacci nearly stopped the show with the first rendition of "Pinball Wizard", and Jewelle Blackman's goose-bump-raising Gypsy channels the iconic Tina Turner (the blonde wig gives it away), subtly moving from mere charlatan to jonesing drug addict in seconds.
Robert Markus (centre) and members of the cast.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
The title character, Tommy, is played by newcomer Robert Markus, who one hopes is getting danger pay for all the climbing, hanging-from-wires and riding bucking pinball machines he is asked to do. While singing. Mr. Markus has the pipes for rock opera and is an enigmatic, strong presence on stage, and makes the role of Tommy seem easy... almost too easy for his talents, if one has also seen him in Fiddler on the Roof

Paul Nolan as Cousin Kevin.
Photo by Michael Cooper.

It is said in theatre that for every actor out on stage there are dozens of behind-the-scenes folk who got him there, and nowhere is this more evident than in this production of Tommy.  So I would like to acknowledge and thank those teams who made it happen: The  carpenters, painters, engineers and electricians (24), wig and makeup crew (3), prop builders (14), stage crew (13), wardrobe teams (estimated between 40-60) and wardrobe attendants (9)... count 'em up, that is at least - at least - 123 professionals working behind-the-scenes as hard as the actors on stage, who also deserve applause for the technological marvel that is Tommy.

Tommy continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 19th and has its eye on Broadway.

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