Saturday, June 1, 2013

Review: (Stratford) Tommy

Robert Markus and company (photo by Michael Cooper)

Tastes of Reality
The spectacle of Tommy is mind-blowing, but at what cost?
by Stuart Munro

As the curtain came down on Tommy last night, the audience around me was jumping to their feet, screaming and cheering – a testament to the fact that they had had an amazing evening. As for me? Well. I was more confused than anything. Sure, I’d understood the (thin) plot. Yes, I’d enjoyed the music, the dancing, and several of the performances. But whatever it was that’d caused everyone around me to leap to their feet had been lost on me. If Tommy had a broader lesson to impart, I’d missed it completely.

Written by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, the show (often styled The Who’s Tommy), relates the story of Tommy who, after witnessing a murder via a mirror, is told by his parents, “You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life.” And so Tommy becomes “deaf, dumb and blind,” seemingly unaffected by anything and everything – until he’s placed in front of a pinball machine by his cousin. Suddenly, Tommy is a wunderkind and a local hero. Over the next ten years, Tommy amasses a huge following, before his hearing, speech, and vision return to him.

In this, I don’t think he’s succeeded – the theatricality of the production is too overwhelming to allow any kind of realism.

This production, a modern remount of Des McAnuff’s original 1993 production, contains a number of strong performances, most noticeably Jeremy Kushnier and Kira Guloien as Tommy’s parents. The few moments they get with the four- and ten-year-old versions of their son are tender and heart-felt. Paul Nolan is appropriately creepy and sadistic as Tommy’s Cousin Kevin, and Steve Ross is remarkably likeable as the “wicked” Uncle Ernie. Likewise, Gabriel Antonacci and Matthew Armet stand out in their various featured roles, but especially during the Act I finale, “Pinball Wizard.” As Tommy, Robert Markus possesses a strong rock voice, but always seems as if he’s holding something back. But overall, the sound this company produces is stellar, proving yet again that some of the best talent in the country is right here in Stratford.

Despite all these skilled performances, the real star of the show is the set design by John Arnone (complete with exploding pinball machines), lighting by Howell Binkley, and projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis. Combined, they create an intense visual spectacle (ironic, considering the subject matter) that, along with Des McAnuff’s direction, help to clearly tell the mostly wordless story, especially in the first act. Costume designer, David C. Woolard, has “used his designs for the original 1992 production as reference, but this time he wanted the characters to look as if they were wearing real clothes rather than costumes.” In this, I don’t think he’s succeeded – the theatricality of the production is too overwhelming to allow any kind of realism.

And therein lies the problem.

Surrounded by all this technical whizzbangery, Tommy feels cold, sterile, and devoid of heart. Most of the time, people seemed to be going through the motions, almost as if the actors’ primary concern was to get out of the way of the moving sets (in fact, I overheard a performer say as much on the street after the show). The same goes for the music itself – Pete Townshend’s score lacks the driving pulse it needs to sweep you away, though whether this is a case of the tempos being too slow or the music being too over-produced I’m not sure. And despite McAnuff’s assertion that they haven’t added effects to this production for the sake of it, I can’t help but feel a lot of the special effects are there simply because they could be. The end result is a production that is all style, but almost no substance.

But I also can’t ignore the 1,000 plus people who leapt to their feet at the show’s finale. So maybe I’ve missed something integral to the understanding of Tommy, and maybe this production is capturing it perfectly.

Stratford’s Tommy runs to October 19 at the Avon Theatre

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