I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch Tommy, the musical by Pete Townsend of The Who, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this afternoon. I didn’t have time to do much expecting, however, because before long the excited buzz of the eager audience was broken by a deafening riff on the electric guitar as the show began. Originally billed as a “rock opera,” Tommy is a musical narrative told almost entirely through rock and roll. It began as a concept album by The Who in the 1960s and, due to its popularity and creativity, enjoyed life as a movie and a concept concert before it was adapted into a Broadway musical in the 1990s by Townsend and director Des McAnuff. Yes, that Des McAnuff – the legendary director of musicals right here in Stratford also directed this production of the show he helped to create decades ago. This time, he assures us in the programme, is different; this time he’s made use of all the technological innovations that have been developed since the show’s first production. And boy, he keeps that promise.
Tommy is, in a word, overwhelming. The music, by nature of its composition, is loud even when the volume is turned down; this afternoon it was cranked up to 11. The visuals, which range from actors suspended by wires to blinding light displays, make it impossible to turn away. At any given moment something is happening, singing, shouting, flying, preaching, dancing, murdering, or shattering
But this is not an accident – an excess of stimuli fits in perfectly with the plot of Tommy. The titular character, who is depicted at various ages from childhood to his 20s, witnesses an horrific murder through the reflection of a mirror when he is a child. Traumatized by what he has seen, Tommy stops communicating with the outside world, seemingly blind, deaf, and dumb. In fact, the only things Tommy seems to do are look at himself in the mirror and play pinball, at which he has a peculiar talent. Tommy comes to block out the sights and the noises of his life, the sights and noises that the audience experiences in supererogatory amounts.
Tommy is overwhelming, but not for no reason and certainly not for waste. The music, which is known to millions of people as a rock classic, is exciting and breathlessly paced. The visuals are stunning; the performances enthralling. The show is, from start to finish, a piece of theatre with so much energy, passion, and skill that it will dominate your every thought and action at least until you leave the theatre and possibly for long after. Or, in a word, overwhelming.
Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional music and lyrics by
John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Originally produced on Broadway by Pace Theatrical Group and Dodger Productions with Kardana Productions
Directed by Des McAnuff
Approximate running time: 2 hrs 3 min, including one interval