Tommy: even harder to perform than it looks

Renegade Arts is producing Tommy.

Little Tommy and Big Tommy struggle—sort of—in The Who’s musical.

The Who’s Tommy is beyond the abilities of this company. And that’s not a big knock on Renegade Arts; this material is ridiculously difficult.

In this stage version of the story, which is based on The Who’s concept album from 1969, Tommy’s dad comes home from WWII, in which he has presumably been killed in action, and murders his mom’s new boyfriend. Having witnessed the shooting and been told by his parents to shut up about it, Tommy becomes catatonic—famously a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid”. As a young man, he also becomes a pinball wizard. And, when he miraculously recovers from his catatonia, he is surprised to find that his fans want to treat him like a guru, to become like him: to Tommy, the miracle is that he can finally be more like them.

You can read Tommy as a metaphor for artistry: the early suffering that sometimes provides fodder for creativity, the expressive release, the resulting success, and the nausea of fame.

That’s all interesting as far as it goes and the score is a treasure chest of rock classics, including “See Me, Feel Me”, “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?”, “I’m Free”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. Compare that to the paucity of memorable music in, say, Wicked.

But there’s a huge hitch: in storytelling terms, Tommy is a passive hero. Throughout virtually all of Act 1, he’s the leather bag that other characters punch: Tommy’s Uncle Ernie molests him, his cousin mocks and mistreats him, medical professionals prod him, and his parents fret over him. Because its central character is such a cipher, The Who’s Tommy offers a series of repetitive events, as opposed to telling us a story about somebody who’s trying to do something—and that’s boring.

If The Who’s Tommy is going to work—and I have seen it work—the production needs to be both a musical feast and a theatrical spectacle. Although this mounting from The Renegade Arts Co. has its strengths, it is neither.

Oddly, for me, the most memorable performance in this production is that of Joshua Vezina, who plays the older version of Young Tommy. Joshua’s little bother Jeremiah Vezina is also very good as the youngest version of the central character. But, in his sad stillness, Joshua is particularly charismatic.

Franklin Cottrell, who plays grown-up Tommy, has a lot more work to do, including some stratospheric singing. His upper register is harsh, however. I missed Roger Daltrey. And the work elsewhere is spotty. Amy Gartner brings armloads of honest feeling to the role of Tommy’s mom, and her voice is pleasing—but only when you can hear it. Vocally, Mark Wolf has more power and more success as Tommy’s dad. There are standouts in the ensemble, including tenor Ian Backstrom and, under the musical direction of Adam Da Ros, the choral work impresses.

Director Chris Lam fails to overcome the weakness of the musical’s book: too often, he is content to let a whole lot of nothing take up a whole lot of stage time. Anna Kuman’s choreography fails to surprise or delight. And lighting designers Stefan Zubovic and Sophie Tang repeatedly leave performers stranded in the dark.

The Who’s Tommy needs fireworks. It’s not getting them.

THE WHO’S TOMMY By Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff. Directed by Chris Lam. Presented by The Renegade Arts Co. at The Shop Theatre on Wednesday, November 9. Continues until November 19.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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