Friday, June 21, 2013

See Me: Tommy

Robert Markus as Tommy

Tommy is a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind kid, but Des McAnuff has made it a feast of the senses. A multiple Tony award winner and recent Order of Canada recipient who at one point in his storied career played guitar as a Toronto-area rock musician, McAnuff is a high energy director known for plucking from the history of pop music old gems (read Jersey Boys and Jesus Christ Superstar) and making them sparkle anew. His Tommy, at Stratford’s Avon Theatre until the end of September, is no exception. A new, updated version of the celebrated 1993 Broadway production created in collaboration with Pete Townshend of The Who fame, Tommy is a thrilling theatrical experience. The mute sings again.

Visually, this new Tommy is spectacular, harnessing the latest in digital technologies for a series of punchy LED rear-screen projections which firmly anchor Tommy in its post-war, middle class British setting. The two-hour plus show also employs automated set pieces that tilt, fire and explode – not unlike a Townshend guitar solo. These theatrical wonders are not the only things to ogle. Howell Binkley’s lighting design is laser-sharp; David C. Woolard’s costumes run the gamut from 1940s-era Rosie the Riveter dungarees to Mary Quant-esque block coloured mini dresses with white go-go boots, a look popularized in the 1960s when The Who, and other British pop bands like them, were dictating the world’s fashion trends. Wayne Cilento’s choreography also keeps the eye riveted. The stage of the Avon is postage stamp small, but Cilento, part of Tommy’s original 1993 Broadway team, makes the dance numbers look larger than life. It takes a great deal of skill to jitterbug or appear to parachute out of a plane on the spot, a feat Cilento skilfully accomplishes with high-octane choreography which the Stratford ensemble of dancers performs with aplomb. His choreography also encompasses the slinky, hip-swirling movement patterns performed by the magnificent Jewelle Blackman singing "The Acid Queen" in her role as the drug-addled Gypsy. Really, you can’t take your eyes off her.

Sonically, the piece is equally potent, rocking out from start to finish. The opening chords are so loud they elicit audible gasps from the instantly astonished crowd. This is theatre as rock extravaganza, loud and in-your-face theatrical. McAnuff uses music and songs from The Who’s original 1969 double concept album, including such iconic tunes as "See Me, Feel Me" and "Pinball Wizard," top 40 singles that helped make Tommy, on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, an international best-seller, with an estimated 20 million albums sold to date. Rick Fox’s musical direction gives these classic rock hits a clarity and oomph best be appreciated when heard played live by members of his rock band orchestra. The lead vocalist is Stratford newcomer Robert Markus as Tommy. Dressed in white and often suspended from the rafters by means of invisible cables which also enable him to fly about the stage as a kind of contemporary deus ex machina, Markus invigorates the show, start to finish, with a rock-out performance to rival The Who’s Roger Daltry’s. Markus has a remarkable range, poignant when singing "Amazing Journey" and powerfully assertive when singing "I’m Free."  When Tommy rises to messianic heights as the centre of a celebrity cult, Markus shrieks like a rock star while still managing a note of pathos. His Tommy is most certainly a victim of cymbal-crashing circumstance.

Director Des McAnuff performing with composer Pete Townshend
Intellectually, Tommy also satisfies not the least because it makes a hero out of such a broken, confused mess of a human being. The plot still comes across as patchy – a leftover from the original album – but the themes of human suffering, endurance and forgiveness thump loud as a propulsive bass line. The original story line, for those from other planets who have managed to miss the last 40-plus years of rock and roll, concerns a small boy named Tommy living in 1950s England who becomes locked inside himself after witnessing a traumatic incident involving his parents and a loaded gun. His young, passionate parents, Mrs. Walker (the Edmonton-born up-and-comer Kira Guloien) and her ex Army husband, Captain Walker (the Winnipeg singer/songwriter Jeremy Kushnier) demand that he never tell anyone about what he saw, never speak about it to anyone. The boy is nothing but obedient. In a flash, he goes from being a normal kid to the deaf, dumb and blind variety immortalized by The Who. The boy suffers unspeakable cruelties as a result of his frailties, including merciless bullying by his Teddy Boy cousin, Kevin (the charismatic Paul Nolan) and sexual abuse by Uncle Ernie (the wonderfully creepy Steve Ross), the main reason why this musical is decidedly not one for the kiddies. As Uncle Ernie, Ross sings the song "Fiddling About," perched malevolently over one of the child actors playing the young Tommy, who lies inert and helpless on a tidily made bed. It is a horrific scene, the evil that is pedophilia rendered in banal even pedestrian terms, which is precisely what makes it all the more disgusting.

Townshend has said that parts of Tommy are autobiographical. It is well known that he is a staunch enemy of child sexual abuse who ironically was accused of hoarding child porn himself. But in his 2012 memoir, Who I Am, Townshend alleges he was framed. While in Canada recently for rehearsals of Tommy at Stratford, Townshend told the CBC that he is most emphatically not a sexual predator. In the radio interview, Townshend said that when watching the scene involving Uncle Ernie today, he becomes teary because it conjures up bad memories his own post-war British childhood which he strongly suggested was both brutal and brutalizing. Certainly, his own personal reaction to the material at hand helps explain away a major note of dissatisfaction about Tommy as seen at Stratford: Uncle Ernie gets away with it.

He is allowed to, for the most part, because for more than half of the play his victim cannot call him out. But when Tommy is able to see and talk again, the expectation is that he might give the abuser his comeuppance. It never happens. Instead, and this is part of a Townshend rewrite executed with McAnuff for the stage version, Tommy forgives him with a kiss. The gesture is delivered a tad too fast. It almost feels beside the point because Uncle Ernie himself just benignly smiles, waving it off. But there is a real message here of human survival, and it is predicated not on the violent emotion often associated with rock and roll, but on the wisdom that comes from maturity. Whatever Townshend’s religious beliefs, (the original album was produced while Townshend was a follower of the Indian mystic, Meher Baba), Tommy resonates with the Christian value of forgiving other people’s sins. In this way, Tommy emulates Jesus Christ Superstar, but with the pinball arcade and the rock star stage here substituting for the garden of Gethsemane and the mound of the cross. Townshend once called what he does “power pop” and perhaps it is this idea that being able to forgive those who trespass against us is the biggest power of all. At the end of Tommy, the ensemble sings "We’re Not Gonna Take It." This rock anthem was once thought to define the spirit of a generation. But within the context of McAnuff’s production it defines instead a spirit that is universal and for all time. Tommy is ultimately a rock opera for the ages.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates.

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