Adapted from The Who’s 1969 double album rock opera, Tommy, The Who’s Tommy is the story of Tommy Walker, a young boy who is left deaf, dumb, and blind, after witnessing a horrible tragedy in his home. As a teen, Walker becomes a sensation for being a wiz at pinball — the only thing able to break through his nearly catatonic state.
Important note: I had no foreknowledge of The Who’s Tommy, or the album (Tommy) from which it was adapted. This to the point of being surprised, doing some background research afterwards and learning that The Who’s Tommy wasn’t biographical. Yes, my knowledge of classic rock from the 60s/70s has huge holes in it, but that’s another discussion for another time. I felt it worthwhile to make this point for anybody who is like me and may be questioning “should I see this if I don’t know anything about The Who or Tommy?”
Told as an opera, the story of Tommy Walker is told poetically to beautiful success, focussing on the core emotional beats of his life from before he was born and through his amazing journey. Walker is played by three actors at various ages who all do exceptional work. Lauren and Ella Samojlenko play Tommy through his childhood and adolescence and deserve special commendation for their ability to play “deaf, dumb, and blind” with everything going on around them on stage. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to not react and these young actresses pull it off notably well. The eldest Tommy, taking over from 18 years on, is played by Jeremy Sanders who creates a fully captivating and energizing persona while also being the most memorable singer in the show.
Ironically, the music itself turned out to be the least interesting part of this musical, with numerous sections where the orchestra overpowered the lyrics making them impossible to understand, at least one occasion where it was simply painful and grating to listen to, and too little that was memorable enough to offset that feeling.
That said, The Who’s Tommy, as presented by Orpheus, is a visually stunning masterpiece. It is a dazzling spectacle to behold, from the projection montage that opened the show – sending Captain Walker away from his family and into WWII – to the brilliant, shining costumes (especially during Pinball Wizard and through act two), and to the overall outstanding production design and continued background projections. The visual story is incredibly compelling and does such a great job telling the poetic beats of this story that you could watch most of the show (and certainly nearly all of the first act) with no sound at all and have no problems following the action. While still having a great time doing it. The Who’s Tommy is a recommend for that alone.
The one thing that didn’t sit well and left me uncomfortable, which is not a commentary on Orpheus’ production per se, was the rock opera’s normalization of pedophilia and sadistic bullying. Yes, we’re all adults here, and it’s fair to note that we may not have been as socially conscious when The Who’s Tommy was written in 1969, but it feels like a disservice to continue to normalize these horrible acts by presenting them as casual events we’re supposed to accept without comment.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you think. Are you a big fan of The Who? Did you love the music? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.
The Who’s Tommy, presented by Orpheus Musical Theatre, runs at Centrepointe Theatre through June 12th. Full information: orpheus-theatre.ca