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Outstanding cast brings TOMMY to life

August 29, 2013
The dazzling version of the rock musical “TOMMY” at Stratford this summer has come a long way. It began as a concert by England’s rock quartet, the Who, back in the 1960s protest era, sprang to success in Canada, the United States and then the world, and paused when the Who’s four musicians progressed to careers as soloists. Then “TOMMY,” the concert showpiece, metamorphosed into a new, impressive form.

Producers were eager to have Peter Townsend, the creator of the first version and Des McAnuff (later to become a festival director) make it a full blown stage production. Some even saw it as “Rock Opera.” The new treatment called for a big cast, elaborate stage setting, full orchestra and spectacular technical effects that set new standards for musical theatre. In 1993 it conquered Broadway. The revival is based on that.

McAnuff and Townsend took the opportunity to assemble an outstanding cast and carefully add the latest technical advances in stagecraft to bring it up to date.

For long time fans, the plot is largely unchanged. A traumatic event in Tommy’s early life involving his father, played with sensivity by Jeremy Kushnier, turns him deaf, dumb and blind.

Kira Guloien as his mother is touchingly guilty as a contributor to the tragedy. As he grows, however, he learns to play pinball, becomes a prodigy and a messianic star figure of the entertainment world.

Steve Ross, the obese Uncle Ernie, baby sitter, child abuser and alcoholic, brings further stress to Tommy’s troubles but plays his part with restrained conviction.

Efforts on behalf of the family to restore Tommy to health are exhaustive bringing a stream of droid like medical personnel traipsing comically, and ineffectively, through Tommy’s disabilities with no success.

They also contribute to the color code of the production design. The medics are in mustard yellow and the London police stand out in electric blue. The satirical impression this engenders recalls the rejective attitude of the protest era that gave rise to the story.

There are more dark sides to Tommy’s friends and family.

Cousin Kevin, in Paul Nolan’s characterization, is a sympathetic hanger-on but not a positive role model while the eldest Tommy sings, dances and speaks for his two younger selves trying to make sense of their life. They cover the ages from toddler to pre-teen.

As blind, deaf mutes their performance is to be turned and guided in silence by others. It’s an effective ruse.

But when he miraculously regains his faculties by falling through a big looking-glass, he seems also to have acquired the confidence and sophistication that he should have gained over the preceding decade. As for the music and dance, Stratford’s singers, dancers and musicians perform with great effect. Contrary to some expectations the music is not so loud as to offend senior members of the audience but with enough verve to arouse cheers from the young. And depending on your age, the sets can be described as psychedelic or surrealist.

An enormous sparkler display got the biggest applause.

“TOMMY” is presented in repertory at the Avon Theatre through Oct. 19. For more information and tickets visit Stratfordfestival.CA or call 800-567-1600.

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