THE WHO’S TOMMY. Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend; book by Des McAnuff and Pete Townshend; directed by Colin Roybal. Produced by Equinox Theatre (Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo St., Denver) through Feb. 4. Tickets available at 303-477-5977 or www.equinoxtheatredenver.com.
The Who was formed in 1964 in the heart of Mod Britain. Their successful early records led to club gigs, during one of which lead guitarist Pete Townshend accidentally broke his guitar neck on a low ceiling. He threw it to the floor and picked up another one to continue the concert. But this act of “destruction” became a trademark, resulting in the smashing of either a guitar or a set of drums with each performance. By 1968, Townshend was seeking a way for his group to extend past the standard three-minute-single song format, and began experimenting with a series of songs that could be tied together with a narrative and performed as a whole. He also realized that his group were no longer teenagers, and that for economic reasons they needed to find a musical format that did not depend on destroying instruments. He had become familiar with the teachings of an Indian spiritual leader, Meher Baba, who maintained silence for more than 40 years, and advocated a drug-free life and a mantra of “don’t worry, be happy”—factors that influenced the direction the album took. The title TOMMY is an homage to the British soldiers of World War II.
Produced as a double album in 1969, TOMMY was an immediate success. Its performance on the concert stage led to a film in 1975, and to a 1993 Broadway show with an expanded narrative written by Broadway director Des McAnuff. Often described as a “rock opera,” its hard-pounding soundtrack makes it definitely more rock than opera—a distinction that was evident in the full house at a recent performance at the Bug. This was a crowd that came to rock, and rock they did.
TOMMY is the story of a boy who is traumatized by an act of violence when he is 4 years old and follows the instructions of his mother, who begs him not to “see this” or “hear this.” She and Tommy’s father spend the rest of their lives trying to undo what they have done. Tommy’s uniqueness leads to additional abuse at the hands of babysitters and uncles. But when it is discovered that his sensory deprivation has led to an almost spiritual connection with pinball machines, he becomes the local hero. As with Edward Scissorhands, however, when his circumstances change and he fails to don the mantle of messiah, his “followers” turn their backs on him. Much like Baba, Tommy learns that family is more important than fame.
Equinox’s production tries hard to live up to the reputation this show has gained as a visually and musically psychedelic feast for the eyes and ears. But limited resources and space make it a scaled-down version, to say the least. The set is an oversized pinball table, with the necessary furniture, mirror and doors being wheeled off and on as needed. The passage of time and changes of scene are well indicated by lighting, and costume designer Debra Faber was able to achieve the look of the period with her uniforms and Carnaby Street–looking color-blocked dresses for the club girls.
The seven-piece band led by Adam White could have—should have—been a smaller concert band. While working to achieve the “rock out” energy required, they consistently drowned out the singers on stage. The action on stage clearly indicated what was going on, yet it would have been nice to hear more clearly the lyrics that went along with the action. I’m sure they have that delicate balance worked out by now.
A standout performance for this audience member was the “middle” Tommy, Carter Novinger, who brought a maturity and ease to a narrator role that bridges the time between Tommy at age 4 (Joey DeLeon) and the adult Tommy (Tyler Nielson). Mrs. Walker, Tommy’s mother, moved easily from a young woman in love to a tormented mother with a gentle air and a beautiful voice. James Bloom seemed a little shaky in Act I, but gained his footing and upped his game in Act II, becoming more forceful and believable as Tommy’s father, Captain Walker. In a gender-bending turn, the bully Cousin Kevin (usually male) was played by Katelyn Kendrick with appropriate nastiness. Brandon De Vito played against type as the evil Uncle Ernie, who goes from two-bit drug dealer to sycophant to rock-star Tommy via child molester. Terra Salazar plays the infamous Acid Queen.
There are some good dancers in the ensemble, but for the most part they seemed to be singers who could move. It felt like the choreography had been tailored more for movers than dancers. The end result: Go and see the show if you like the music, because the music is well presented. But if you’re expecting an evening that will leave you moved and excited, it’s probably not going to happen.
WOW factor: 8