Originally a double album of conceptually linked songs released by the Who in 1969, Tommy was the first music to be popularly designated a “rock opera.” Though some work in that vein had been done by ever-so-slightly-earlier or near-exactly-contemporaneous groups, it’s a genre-establishing recording, a landmark of popular culture. And, of course, many people would take it as given that the Who are both architects and best practitioners of the variety of pop-influenced heavy music (or vice versa) known as “arena rock.”
So, interpreters of their work are faced with an enormous challenge: It’s a bit like using a word in its own definition. And, to be fair, with Tommy, the Who’s primary songwriter Pete Townshend produced an emotionally charged, but by theatrical standards, dramatically incomplete story. To capture the grand, anthemic quality of the music and to provide a satisfying through line for a theater audience . . . yikes.
The play known formally as The Who’s Tommy, then, is an acknowledgement of that difficulty. After a couple of “theatrical” presentations in the early ’70s and the well-known and wonderfully bonkers Ken Russell film of 1975, Pete Townshend teamed with theatrical director Des McAnuff in 1993 to write a Broadway-specific new book. In my opinion, that was an only moderately good idea.
Why the history lesson? Because this current Berkshire Theatre Festival production has made something spectacular and very entertaining out of something with a checkered backstory; and, frankly, they deserve something of a disclaimer prior to my quibbles.
Which I’ll get out of the way, in short order. I hate the changes made to the original story by Townshend and McAnuff. Where Tommy made a forceful and appropriately ambiguous, if scattershot, critique of the messianic appeal and danger of celebrity, The Who’s Tommy ends with a gee-whiz, there’s-no-place-like-home, feel-good scene that makes absolutely no sense and guts the power of earlier moments.
That change bends the production into a shape perhaps better suited to traditional musical theater, but it really compromises the material overall. This weakening is, inevitably, reflected in performances. The solo singers, all very capable, rarely rocked. Instead, they extended syllables in operatic fashion—and with fleeting and fitful accents—that had me thinking less of the Who’s Roger Daltrey than of Oliver!‘s Artful Dodger.
That said, the production does not lack energy. Eric Hill’s direction and Gerry McIntyre’s choreography keep things fast, fun and engaging. And music director Randy Redd and his band do an excellent job of presenting the Who’s music with gusto and emotion, without simply aping. (Drumming by Kali Baba McConnell was of particular note.) The set is smartly stylized and dynamic, as much a part of the play’s energy as the cast.
And of that cast it must be said, they are excellent. Particularly in the ensemble numbers. James Barry as Captain Walker, and Aaron Barcelo as the Hawker, and Angela Robinson as the Acid Queen did good work imbuing the opera with some rock; but post-show discussion revealed that favorites were various. And at the finale, the audience reaction was thunderous.
This production is a high-energy one performed by a talented cast, led by a musical director and director with clear respect for the music and theatrical intent of Pete Townshend. Well, 1993’s Townshend, anyway. The Who’s Tommy is a good night out. And, what the hell, I’ve got the ’69 release at home.