How did we get here from there? The Who’s Tommy, like its central character, has taken possibly the most circuitous route in the history of musical theatre to arrive at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre, in an Australian premiere production by Victorian Opera. It started life in 1968 as a concept album, and arguably became the defining example of rock opera. Over the years, it would transmogrify into an increasingly baroque series of symphonic concerts and then a 1975 film directed by the king of excess, Ken Russell. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Who’s Pete Townshend adapted it into a Broadway musical, for better and for worse.
Tommy is the story of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who, traumatised by an act of violence as a child, suffers from a kind of locked-in syndrome that is never adequately explained. He rises to fame as a pinball wizard and eventually becomes a cult leader, a position he finally rejects. It’s heavily influenced by the teachings of Indian spiritualist Meher Baba and, depending on your taste, is either the final word on countercultural self-actualisation or a pretentious pseudo-religious dirge.
Townshend, in adapting the material into a musical, has clarified the dramatic action but also somewhat neutered its central theme; the satirical edges of the story have been blunted, the provocations that made it seem so radical at the time sanitised beyond recognition. Russell pushed the work into garishly surreal territory, and Townshend seems to have brought it back not so much to its original state, but to a kind of anodyne halfway house. It isn’t disastrous, but it makes for a far safer night in the theatre.
Tommy retreats into semiconsciousness because he witnesses his second world war fighter pilot dad kill his mother’s new boyfriend. (In Russell’s film, it’s the boyfriend who kills the dad, a Freudian renting of more significance.) Emotional and sexual abuse follow, but in this stage version those darker aspects of the story are so toned down they barely register. The extremity of Tommy’s suffering is supposed to mirror the passion of Christ, and without it this messianic quality is lost. In this iteration, Tommy’s journey to selfhood is less a sacred and more a purely psychological one.
Fortunately, there are compensations aplenty. It isn’t surprising that Victorian Opera’s commitment to the quality of the music is at the forefront; what is extraordinary is how expertly the sound design (Peter Grubb) merges with some truly superb singing to create a wondrous polyphony. Mat Verevis is magnificent as Tommy, his rock inflections effortless and his pure tenor beautifully soulful. Amy Lehpamer and Matt Hetherington are strong as mum and dad, although Lehpamer is criminally underused in the first act and neither of them get to display the depravity Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed relished in the film.
Kanen Breen is suitably icky as Uncle Ernie, and Vincent Hooper makes for a repugnant Cousin Kevin – Tommy intriguingly turns these two tormentors into his management and security at the height of his pinball fame – and Paul Capsis uses that outrageous falsetto to lift the roof as the Acid Queen (a role that in the film was offered to Mick Jagger and eventually played by Tina Turner). The rest of the ensemble are terrific, harmonious and vivid throughout.
Director Roger Hodgman, perennially under-appreciated in this country, does a superb job of coordinating the action, shaping the tonal shifts and pressing the emotional registers. If the early scenes have an episodic quality to them, a sense of props and sets being wheeled needlessly on and off, the flow improves as the show progresses, until the finale achieves an expansiveness that borders on the transcendent. Matt Scott’s lighting is somehow both subdued and maximalist, and Isaac Lummis’s costumes are beautifully judged.
The Who’s Tommy is something of an oddity in the annals of musical theatre, partway between conventional narrative and rock oratorio. Musically, it is incredibly rich and varied – Jack Earle’s musical direction brilliantly illuminates the score’s breadth and melodic force – even if it makes little dramatic sense. The Who were a band desperate to define their era, its tilt towards youth idolisation and generational rebellion, and there is something uneasy about the way their material is cramped into the musical theatre form and then viewed from the distance of time. The Who’s Tommy feels disconnected to its source, and lacks the freewheeling perversity of the original. And yet, it still has a strange potency to it, an allegorical heft that echoes down the decades. Tommy might not be able to heal us, but in this admirable production we certainly see, hear and feel him.