It’s hard to believe this year is Tommy‘s 40th anniversary. The two-LP rock album that turned the music world upside down hit the market on May 23, 1969. Composed by Pete Townshend, lead guitarist of the British rock band The Who, this 24-track double record release was the first work to be billed as a rock opera. Various versions, including a ballet, have enjoyed wide success over the decades. Now Circle Theatre’s exciting production of the Broadway musical Tommy offers us both an eyeful and an earful.
The show is breathlessly paced and well staged by director Jeffrey Cass. From the leads to the tireless ensemble playing multiple roles, the cast is so dynamic, members bring the dark story to life with great flash and dazzle. This loud, ambitious musical fills Circle’s intimate stage with nonstop music and movement, even utilizing the aisle in true ’60s style for the rousing finale.
The thrilling score includes “Listening to You,” “Acid Queen,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Pinball Wizard.”
The story opens in war-torn London during the blitz of the early 1940s. Tommy’s father, a Royal Air Force pilot named Captain Walker (Eric Lindahl), after being shot down and held in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, is reported missing in action. Tommy’s mom (Michelle Pickett), thinking she’s a war widow, takes a lover (Cameron Brune). When her husband unexpectedly returns home after the war, he finds the pair together and shoots the boyfriend.
Four-year-old Tommy witnesses the murder, but his parents insist he didn’t see it. The boy is so traumatized, he retreats into a psychosomatic loss of speech, hearing and sight. Dylan Angel Manianglung-Lainez is perfect, effectively conveying Tommy’s stoic descent into a catatonic state. (With due respect, this darling child actor might begin choosing a more marquee-friendly stage name if he plans to stay in the business.)
Playing 10-year-old Tommy is Alex Turner. Though the medical world asserts the boy is incurable, he seems to possess an uncanny knack for playing pinball.
“Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” his frantic, frustrated mom sings as she attempts to reach him, finally smashing a huge mirror with a chair. Shards of glass burst into the air in a stunning visual effect. The production is full of amazing graphics and video montages that create a thrilling multimedia experience.
The blind, deaf and speechless boy miraculously overcomes his affliction to become a spiritual leader, a kind of ’60s guru with mass appeal. When his horrific buried memories emerge, Tommy reclaims full consciousness.
Nobody used the term “dysfunctional family” in 1969, but the plot here revolves around every misunderstood child’s revenge fantasy: the lonely, neglected protagonist with distant, clueless parents endures some really bad stuff but eventually finds himself and, in the process, rises up to win the adulation of roaring multitudes.
Tom McGunn is vibrant and charismatic in the title role as the adult Tommy.
Portraying the Acid Queen, the role played by Tina Turner in the 1975 film version, Shannon Boland impressively uses her lusty charms and spirited dancing to try to cure the boy.
Jon Landvick is creepy as Tommy’s alcoholic pedophile uncle who abuses the child without fear of being caught. Tommy is further bullied by his sadistic cousin (Gerald Kelel).
Though the scenes of sexual molestation involving the disabled child are not graphic and there is ultimately healing and a happy ending, much of Tommy is pretty dark and sordid – not really suitable for small children.
Kevin Bellie’s choreography is amazing. He fills the Circle stage with intricate, frenetic movement yet never once do the dancers appear cramped, nor did any cast members in my sightline collide. Such aging purists as myself, however, who actually remember doing the dances of the ’50s and ’60s, may object to some slight historical blurriness. A few steps from the 1960s, such as the twist and the frug, are shown in scenes identified as being from the ’50s.
Musical director Carolyn Brady Riley’s outstanding six-piece band provides solid rock concert-style accompaniment. But even though they’re tucked out of sight, the over-amplified instruments often drown out the singers’ voices, causing us to lose Townshend’s lyrics.
Bob Knuth’s scenic and graphic design is impressive, with huge, powerful photo images (bombing, Hitler ranting, destruction) and eye-popping visuals. A quick bit in which Tommy’s mom is seen welding airplanes looks like a fireworks show.
Beth Scheible is the stage manager. The frequent, almost cinematic scene changes are quick, with ensemble members pushing furniture on and off, quickly hanging chairs on big hooks along the sides of the set.
The show ends on a peak of joyous uplift – “Listening to you I get the music,” Tommy sings. “Gazing at you I get the beat.” I’ve seen a number of performances of this musical over the years, and I’m frankly always somewhat unclear just how all the darkness disappears. But it does.
The music is top-notch. The direction and performances are right-on. The voices are strong. And the look of this Circle production is dazzling. But I must confess I can never quite emotionally connect with any of this material. It’s all so busy and frenzied – scads of photographers, choir members, bullyboys, medical staff and such, always racing on and off. It’s like trying to hook up your soul with a three-ring circus. Yet Tommy is a major classic in musical history and, days later, the songs are still pleasantly swirling in my head.
Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher and school librarian who, when not reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal and the Forest Park Review, is a stand-up comic, museum tour guide, and author of several books about local communities.