Central to the storyline of this ‘60s rock opera is the ugly happenstance of psychological trauma (witnessing your suddenly reincarnated father—presumed killed after disappearing behind enemy lines in WW II—shoot dead your step-father, then being told to wipe the incident from memory: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”) and all manner of abuse (being fiddled with by your career-alcoholic uncle; bullied by a cousin; initiated to the fairer sex thanks to your well-meaning, murderous dad).
The initial trauma, not surprisingly, causes our hero, Tommy, to shut down: blind, deaf and dumb to the shattered world around him.
His distraught (yet relieved: no comeuppance for the hot-blooded war hero) parents spend many years looking for any sort of medical cure to the walking, emotionally wounded boy, but—of course—to no avail: there’s no magic pill.
Symbolically and metaphorically, pubescent Tommy suddenly finds fame and unseeing fortune—incredibly mastering the twin flippers of pinball machines by feel alone. Yet despite that incredible achievement (not dissimilar to walking on water or healing the lame), the young man remains in his self-imposed exile until Mother—in an Alice Through the Looking Glass moment—literally explodes his “frozen” image by destroying his mirrored reflection.
At last, Tommy comes back to his senses.
With such a miracle under his belt, it’s little wonder Tommy instantly morphs from chronically challenged wimp to mesmerizing, all-seeing Messiah.
At this opening night performance with the original creator—Pete Townshend, alongside director Des McAnuff—on hand, it should/could have been a magical evening for the revival of the 1993 Broadway production (neither old or new can hold a candle to Ken Russell’s 1975 film).
The elephant in the Avon Theatre—oblivious, it seemed to the enraptured crowd, replete with a tiresome claque—was Townshend’s checkered past with child pornography. In his new book, Who I Am, the famed rocker explains that he didn’t trouble himself to clear his name (officially “cautioned” by UK police in 2003, caught up in Operation Ore when it was revealed he’d paid to access a child porn site) because prosecution lawyers would “fucking rip me apart” if he went to court. Not a trace of Conrad Black’s DNA in this guitarist’s constitution.
If the oft-quoted mantra “write what you know” is applied to the narrative of Tommy, then the level of discomfort—especially decades later since so many tales of abuse have come to light—ought to have left the Avon quiet and bare instead of jammed to the rafters with patrons cheering every bar, special effect and calamity.
Knowing only too well what the outcomes of those in a position of authority (be they relatives, clergy, teachers, mentors, money-is-no-object lechers…) wreaking havoc on their trusted charges, the fact that none of this show’s staged atrocities ever find convincing justice became more and more troubling as the scenes went by.
How might Tommy be received by, as just one example, survivors of Mount Cashel?
No worries: after all, it’s only a musical!
To the production itself:
How curious that mute Tommy’s silent rocking in the aftermath of the latest horror inflicted upon him was nearly a carbon copy of Tevye’s praying body in Fiddler on the Roof (cross-reference below).
In typical McAnuff fashion, the “wow” factor came from a no-decibel-too-strong music track (brilliantly led by Rick Fox), a surfeit of video effects (masterfully orchestrated by Sean Nieuwenhuis), Spiderman-like aerial effects which must have had many in the crowd wondering if the stage had finally become a second screen and only frustrated that their live tweets didn’t appear in a sidebar along with the action and a fantastic array of choreography thanks to Wayne Cliento’s ability to push the troupe to the upper boundaries of their collective capabilities.
As good as all of this was, the oft-repeated lyrics (See me, feel me, touch me, heal me)—to those with ears, eyes and especial experience—couldn’t get past the real-life trauma that continues to be plied by the pathetically opportunistic strong on the naïve and innocent weak everywhere.
From that viewpoint, the production was more endured than savoured and there’s no way possible to quantify that unforgiving felling of unease with any number of stars. JWR