Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Who's Tommy
Twenty-three years after the album's 1969 debut, The Who's Tommy was adapted into something resembling a musical, though there's still very little story or character involved. (In fact, I become highly suspicious of the internet account explaining the 1992 stage re-write by Des McAnuff, which seems far more detailed than his own libretto.) The work started out as a rock opera and, from all appearances, those were its glory days.
Pete Townsend wrote the music and lyrics (additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon) for the original version and for the 1975 movie. In the end, Tommy is the rare case where the provenance is far better than the product.
The Stray Dog Theatre production is tantalizing nonetheless: in the opening minutes, with the lights way down, some very respectable op-art animated graphics are projected hypnotically on the white boxy stage. That's when you can begin to understand why big stars like Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Tina Turner, and others wanted to pile on board for the film, 44 years ago.
And now, in 2019, in trendy Tower Grove East in South St. Louis, the lights come up and ruin everything. Tommy should be done with a lot more animated projected graphics, in crazy colors, and very little fill-lighting. It should be part Tron and part "dark carnival of the soul." Every time the lights come up bright, it's stripped of its nightmarish qualities and laid as bare as the skimpy, wandering dream you unwisely shared at the office water-cooler the next morning.
The child sex abuse that takes up so much of the plot seems far too ghastly under the lights, and the sneering physical abuse that follows seems intentionally unbelievable under Tyler Duenow's very literal lighting (though his projected graphics are excellent). It makes me wonder if the production team went astray somewhere, throwing everything into an unflattering light.
But in case you were born yesterday, I should explain that the story begins with a mildly violent death scene (with just the slightest hint of gunfire, as we say in St. Louis), and that the horrified reaction of Tommy's parents afterward provokes the boy into "deaf, dumb, and blindness." Grown-up Tommy is played by the very likable Kevin Corpuz, and his wildly inept parents are played by the equally amenable Phil Leveling and Kelly Howe. There's some untheatrical pinball playing scattered throughout, enhanced by some good smoke machine work. As Captain and Mrs. Walker, Mr. Leveling and Ms. Howe make so many outrageous parenting mistakes that they should (on some level) be quite funny. But in the crushing gravity of adolescence, native to the world of rock opera, alas they are not.
Two younger Tommys, Alora Marguerite Walsby and Leo Taghert, are admirably stoic. And later, 104 minutes into the proceedings, the whole production springs to life when young Mr. Taghert and Mr. Corpuz confront one another through a mirror. For the next fifteen minutes or so, the show begins to resemble the musical this 1992 reimagining aspires to be. Very near the end, a large number of unsuspecting audience members are pulled up on stage for a mildly embarrassing "be-in," an homage to the 1960s. The embarrassment was compounded at the performance I attended by the sudden appearance from the audience of two of our town's most brilliant stage performers, along with the rest of the paid visitors. Those two brought with them all the charm and naturalism this over-lit pastiche had lacked till then.
But it would be unfair to leave it there, without mentioning a few of the many highly accomplished people in this cast. Cory Frank presents a prancing, spider-like Uncle Ernie, glistening with dark comedy; likewise, Tristan Davis is tireless as a near-supervillain in the role of Cousin Kevin. And Eileen Engel (who designed the army of fluorescent-trimmed costumes) shines as Sally, Tommy's good-hearted lover near the end.
Music director Jennifer Buchheit lays out a very good band, but provides an unremarkable chorus, and not every cast member is a great singer. Far worse, the show frequently loses its way in the big dance numbers, which do nothing to advance the story. This is more of a criticism of the libretto and the characters than of Mike Hodges' choreography.
But overall, there seems to be a pervasive sense, on stage, that the former rock opera still can never contain any real characters, though it's clearly remounted as a stage production. Beyond the streamlined nature of rock and roll, this is almost certainly a byproduct of the psychological inaccessibility of its anti-hero: in some ways, The Who's Tommy is the Clockwork Orange of rock operas, colorful and bizarre. But in this case, Tommy is the target of a violent world, instead of the other way around. And Stanley Kubrick's cinematic treatment of Anthony Burgess's novel benefitted from supremely confident characterizations. While Mr. Frank and Mr. Davis fill their characterizations with great detail, it may be unfair to suggest this production could possibly contain as many resounding performances itself.
In the mirror scene, as he finally takes ownership of his own life, the characters of Tommy and his parents do briefly flourish, during the musical numbers "Smash The Mirror" and "I'm Free." There is no obvious evolution beyond that moment, despite some third-rate motivational speeches (which Mr. Townsend could not have known would become tiresome, though Mr. McAnuff certainly should have been wary of, 23 years later). The finale is pleasant, providing a sense of healing, but without any textual development for the other characters involved. And I'm not sure that even someone as remarkable as director Justin Been could fix that problem.
The Who's Tommy runs through October 26, 2019, at Stray Dog Theatre, Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information on this show and the new 17th season of Stray Dog Theatre, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):