Newspapers report that the generation gap in America is now as wide as it was in 1969. Let’s see 1969: My parents were turned off to the hippie scene and I had one record album. It was the rock opera Tommy, by the Who. It spun on my turntable so often that my folks started to like it.
Between my musical tastes and those of my 14-year-old son, there’s a Grand Canyon. So I decided to see if Tommy, now in a local revival of the Broadway musical, could do its magic again and bridge our generation gap.
Before the show, which is playing at Circle Theatre, I explained the opera’s plot:
“It’s about a deaf, dumb and blind kid, who sure plays a mean pinball.”
My son asked how this was possible. I replied:
“He ain’t got no distractions, can’t hear no buzzers and bells. Don’t see no lights a-flashin’, plays by sense of smell.”
I suddenly realized how kooky Tommy‘s plot sounded. To its credit, Circle Theatre makes Tommy‘s story both sensible and moving.
Like most operas, Tommy begins with an overture and Circle uses this interlude to establish the back-story of its characters. You see, Tommy Walker was born in Britain during World War II and his paratrooper father was captured and sat out the war behind barbed wire. (A projection screen is used to great effect to show these events). When Captain Walker unexpectedly returns from the war and catches his wife with a new lover, the resulting trauma renders his 4-year-old son speechless and sightless.
An evil uncle and a cruel cousin then torment the poor kid. His only salvation is being really good at pinball. The large cast expertly sells this story, with exuberant dancing and spirited singing. The real star of the show, though, is the music, played with thunderous force by Carolyn Riley’s band.
Director Kevin Bellie said it was the music that drew him to Tommy and he listened to the album incessantly. He decided to mike some of the singers, so the band could play full-out. He considers percussion to be a key element of the production and Circle has a killer drummer driving the music.
Bellie enjoyed choreographing the show, blending dances from the ’50s and ’60s with modern moves. It took the cast four days to work out the technical aspects of dancing on such a tight stage. The dance numbers are so strenuous that many cast members have dropped 10 pounds.
Circle Theatre has been packed for its performances of Tommy and the night we went was no exception. After the exhilarating climax, I asked the world’s toughest critic what he thought. He said he really liked the drummer. So if you have any generation gaps to bridge, or just want to see, feel and hear Tommy, the rock opera continues at Circle until July 19.