Though the source material may stem from a 1969 concept album that reignited the falling star of a prominent British rock band, The Who’s Tommy still tells an engaging and surprisingly timely story of a boy (the eponymous character) rendered deaf, blind, and mute by a tragedy he witnesses in his youth. Despite his prominent disabilities, Tommy becomes a, shall we say, “Pinball Wizard” and rockets into superstardom, though his own ambitions are decidedly more grounded.
First things: the distinction between a traditional musical and a rock opera must be made so audiences aren’t coming through the theater doors with lofty visions of elaborate dance numbers, and verbal exposition. There is very little dialogue throughout the 105-minute runtime of the show. As for the exposition bit, don’t expect there to be much, as the musical’s book itself necessitates an attentive audience to follow along with the story which, while simple at its core, carries a surprising amount of depth that shouldn’t go unchecked.
Within rock operas, indeed with many traditional operas as well, there is always the risk of pacing issues, as the continuous singing doesn’t always lend itself to emotional builds and crescendos. Occasionally, some beats feel dropped, a handful of weighty emotional moments don’t have the heft they should, and the catalyzing incident that sets the story in motion happens at such a breakneck speed that it almost induces whiplash. Being that this rendition of Tommy was served sans intermission, the sluggish moments stood out even more, too. However, the cast does some incredibly heavy lifting. Their infectious energy and committed performances doing much to mitigate the occasional pacing slip.
Standouts include adult Tommy (Andy Mientus), who conveys a tender vulnerability, as well as an undercurrent of mania that permeates his interactions with the rest of the world–particularly during the notably lively “I’m Free”–once he’s quite literally come to his senses in his later years. Watching him grapple with a newfound sense of freedom whilst also coming to terms with his overwhelming celebrity status provided some incredible emotional flexibility. Joining him in the ranks of top performers are his mother, Mrs. Walker (Betsy Morgan), portrayed with a warmth that eventually gives way to maternal frustration, and The Gypsy, brought to life by Lulu Fall during the song “Acid Queen,” wherein she takes to the stage, chews up the scenery, and belts some deliriously strong notes.
It was wonderful to see that the director had upheld the practice of colorblind casting that many stagings of Tommy encourage. The various iterations of Tommy, as well as his cousin Kevin, are portrayed throughout by actors of different races without any sort of fuss about it, and each actor brings enough personality to their respective characters. Props to the younger Tommys (Radley Wright and Owen Zitek, playing the character at ages 4 and 10, respectively) who mostly operates in silence, as well as to young Kevin (Charlie Korman), who is so instantaneously unpleasant without being a complete caricature of a “mean kid.”
And while this isn’t an issue with casting so much as it was with execution, Uncle Ernie (Carson Elrod), expressly presented as sexually abusive towards young Tommy, essentially turns into a comic relief character, so much so that it appeared that the rest of the audience had all but forgotten that he had taken advantage of a child scenes prior. But perhaps there is something to be said about the multi-dimensionality of characters on stage and how those once-sinister can also be darkly humorous. If that is something to be said, it wasn’t said very loudly at all. Ultimately though, this is a small misstep amidst a series of successful leaps.
One of the definitive highlights of the production is undoubtedly the set work. Much of the action takes place in the Walker house, which is originally shown as a dollhouse from which the young Tommy quite literally crawls. Though the dollhouse features throughout the rest of the show, for staging needs, its interior has been reproduced at a large enough scale to give it full functionality. Other sections of the set move, turn, rise, and fall into the stage, drawing the eye to and fro throughout the runtime. Particularly impressive moments include the center of the stage opening into a mock pit that ten-year-old Tommy is precariously dangled over, as well as several scenes when the set was lit up with brilliant, bold neon that provided a wonderful contrast to the mostly neutral palette of the costuming.
The clever set choices were accompanied by several audiovisual accoutrements that were quite inspired, which includes the occasional live filming of certain cast members delivering brief monologues, which was simultaneously broadcast on a white screen that occasionally dropped down to occlude the set behind it (this same screen and visual gimmickry served to create certain war backdrops as well as a stark, monochromatic backdrop to the numerous doctor’s visits the impaired Tommy attends).
Denver’s Stage Theatre possesses a certain intimacy that lends itself well to the production. The audio in the half-round engulfs the audience, and the performers are close enough as to be incredibly visible without being in-your-face.
Was it a perfect experience? No, but I don’t think that it ever set out to be that, nor does it need to. Bolstered by solid performances, raucous, energetic music by the great Pete Townshend, and some incredibly eye-catching set design, The Who’s Tommy is a thematically deep, if at times confusing, rock opera that has withstood the test of time. It provides intriguing commentary on the self, our value of fame, and what it truly means (or doesn’t mean) to be “normal.”
Tommy is playing at the Stage Theater at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased here.
Photos courtesy of DCPA