Wednesday, June 5, 2013


*** (out of 5)

Reviewed by James Karas

As the audience is settling down for the opening of Tommy, there is a blast of music that is so powerful, it shook my stomach. The volume was turned down for some parts of the rock opera but my stomach vibrated for an inordinate amount of time during the performance.

Tommy, of course, is the hugely successful musical by Pete Townshend (music, lyrics and book) and Des McAnuff (book). McAnuff was the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival and last year his Jesus Christ Superstar was produced there and later taken to Broadway.

The volume at which much of the music and singing is done in Tommy is reminiscent of bars where people are supposed to drink, talk and mingle but the music is so loud I cannot imagine how any communication is possible.

The production values of this staging are substantial.

Tommy has an interesting and fascinating plot, far better than one would expect from a musical. As a child, Tommy witnesses the murder of his mother’s lover by his father. His father was presumed dead in World War II but returned. The boy becomes blind and deaf but reacts and comes to life, in effect, when he starts paying a pinball machine. He becomes nothing less than a heroic Pinball Wizard.

This production gave me the feeling that I was inside a pinball machine. That means that in addition to the often powerful and very loud music there are flashes of light, a dizzying display of colours, changes of scene with incredible speed and an astounding number of theatrical effects.

There is liberal use of projections from airplanes and parachutists at the beginning (Tommy’s father was in the air force) street scenes, interior and exterior scenes throughout. The production is intended to and succeeds in overwhelming the audience with its prodigious onslaught of music, colours, movement, dancing and singing. The audience is barely and rarely given a chance to catch its breath. That is what I mean by production values.

Credit is due to the designers who deserve a bow and mention by name: John Arnone (set), David C. Woolard (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting), Andrew Keister (sound), Sean Nieuwenhuis (projection). 

Special mention is deserved by Wayne Cilento for his choreography. Here is athletic coordination, synchronized movement and creation of energy that is simply outstanding.

The strong cast which frequently sings at the top of their lungs is headed by Robert Markus as Tommy. He sings and acts well. Kira Guloien  and Jeremy Kushnier are very good as his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Walker, with Steve Ross as his pervert Uncle Ernie. Paul Nolan is outstanding as Cousin Kevin.

The musical has a large cast and its success lies in the production values that I mentioned and not in any single aspect.

I must admit that my appreciation of rock music falls short of being keen and for that reason I have concentrated on the positive aspects of the production. One day I may even come to appreciate really loud music that makes my stomach vibrate.

Tommy by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff opened on May 30 and will run in repertory until October 19, 2013 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.

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