This ‘Tommy’ lives up to the Who’s pioneering legend
PITTSFIELD - Late in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s darkly hypnotic, first-rate production of “The Who’s Tommy,’’ the title character tries to shake off the near-messianic role into which he’s been thrust. Tommy (a charismatic Randy Harrison) essentially urges his fans and the media to get a life and stop living vicariously through him. En masse, they reject his message, angrily pointing their fingers at Tommy while belting out “We’re Not Gonna Take It.’’
In that moment - one of many that are skillfully realized by director Eric Hill - it’s hard to distinguish fame from captivity. If celebrity was already a kind of gilded prison when Pete Townshend wrote the Who’s pioneering rock opera “Tommy’’ more than four decades ago, it’s even more so today. In the era of TMZ and the stalkerazzi, an omnivorous public demands an all-access pass to those whom it deigns to make famous.
That gives a fresh currency to “The Who’s Tommy,’’ an early-’90s stage adaptation by Townshend and Des McAnuff that has the additional virtue of helping erase the memory of the lurid, execrable 1975 film version of “Tommy’’ by Ken Russell. (Remember the spectacle of Ann-Margret writhing on the floor in a spangled white jumpsuit, covered in baked beans? I wish I could forget it.)
“The Who’s Tommy’’ is the first joint production by the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Colonial Theatre since the two organizations finalized their merger at the end of May. It’s a pretty auspicious kickoff that generates waves of energy inside the Colonial, still a gem of a theater nearly a century after it was founded.
The ornately gleaming venue notwithstanding, an oppressive, hemmed-in atmosphere of psychological imprisonment suffuses “The Who’s Tommy,’’ thanks to Gary M. English’s set design, with its gray scaffolding, and Shawn E. Boyle’s moody, “Persona’’-like projections. Gerry McIntyre’s choreography periodically evokes the spasmodic rhythms of a pinball machine, with dancers thrusting themselves forward and back like flippers.
When Tommy’s father, Captain Walker (James Barry), mistakenly believed dead in World War II, returns home years later and discovers his wife (Jenny Powers) with a lover, a confrontation ends with the lover slain. The trauma of witnessing the killing renders the young Tommy deaf, mute, and blind.
His growing isolation from the world is searingly captured in “Christmas,’’ where the boy is set apart from relatives who are gathered around a festive holiday table, asking one another, in a smug and even taunting refrain, “How can he be saved?’’
There is precious little human kindness directed at Tommy (who is played by Paige Scott at age 4 and Connor McNinch at age 10). His twisted Uncle Ernie (a creepily effective Christopher Gurr) sings “Fiddle About’’ as he prepares to molest him. He is brutalized by his loutish cousin Kevin (Ben Rosenblatt). And he is subjected by the Acid Queen (Angela Robinson) to a serenade that is half-seduction, half-threat. Attired in a green sequined dress and knee-high boots, Robinson knocks the song, “Acid Queen,’’ out of the park.
Only when Tommy is found to have an unrivaled genius for pinball, a gift celebrated at the close of Act 1 with “Pinball Wizard,’’ is he able to begin to gain some control over his life and destiny. In Act 2, after he recovers his sight, hearing, and voice, Harrison exults in the moment with a joyous rendition of “I’m Free.’’ But as his pop-star celebrity grows and he reprises that tune, its title becomes a little less true.
While it is Harrison who gives “The Who’s Tommy’’ its center and its soul, he is ably supported by the rest of the cast. As Captain Walker, Barry (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’) maintains a trace of ambiguity amid flashes of malevolence. Powers subtly conveys the complicated essence of Mrs. Walker, an alternately loving, selfish, and guilt-stricken figure. This mother’s bond with her unusual son is frayed but never entirely broken, and Powers artfully adds a note of anguish even to her performance of “Smash the Mirror,’’ a song of towering frustration.
I’m not sure I buy the scene of reconciliation among Tommy and his onetime tormentors at the end. It seems too pat. What does seem fitting, given how well this production captures the spirit of their historic album, is that the last image we see is of the Who.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.