STORY: Mr. Walker, a captain in the English Army during World War II, is missing in action and presumed dead. Devastated, Mrs. Walker takes solace in her only child, young Tommy, as well as the lustful embrace of a new lover. When Captain Walker arrives home at the war’s conclusion, he confronts his wife’s lover and kills him in a struggle. As his parents advise Tommy to “disremember” the murder, the traumatized boy sinks into a catatonic state, unable to see, hear or speak.
Tommy remains uncommunicative, except for the singular talent of swaying to the vibrations of the pinball machine at which he excels. A cult following begins to form around the “deaf, dumb and blind boy” in his “quiet vibration land,” as Tommy takes on messianic status.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Who’s Pete Townshend was the driving force behind Tommy, the first rock opera, which he composed in the late 1960s. A touring company played The Fox several years ago with a compelling version, but the current rendition at Stray Dog Theatre trumps that with a vibrant and exhilarating production.
OTHER INFO: Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell is listed as codirector, but he graciously points out in his program notes that the bulk of the effort is Justin Been’s responsibility. Regardless, Stray Dog’s Tommy is a glorious musical achievement that successfully introduces the company’s substantial upgrade in sound equipment, courtesy of Lucas Clopton, for the acoustically challenging Tower Grove Abbey.
Musical director Chris Peterson’s tight and talented combo offers powerful support that emphasizes Townshend’s dazzling music but not at the expense of drowning out the actors. Been collaborates with James Volmert Jr. on a stylized set inspired by a movement known as steampunk. A giant kaleidoscope looming above the stage opens at various times to reveal key scenes in Tommy’s mind, something dazzlingly executed with Been’s projections, as well as Megan Henderson’s scenic art. Been and co-props designer Steve Roma further enhance the presentation with some clever versions of the pinball machines.
Been utilizes the Abbey auditorium for exits and entrances of the myriad performers, a strong ensemble that beautifully conveys the book by Townsend and McAnuff and Townsend’s strong lyrics (with additional music and lyrics by two of Townshend’s late colleagues, John Entwistle and Keith Moon). Three players essay the title role, including young Audrey Manalang as 4-year-old Tommy, Braden Phillips as Tommy at 10, and Antonio Rodriguez as Tommy the young man.
Paula Dean and Jeffrey Wright are solid as Tommy’s parents, and Josh Douglas excels as Tommy’s sleazy and pedophiliac Uncle Ernie.
If you’re looking for a fresh and invigorating take on a classic rock work, check out this Tommy to see the Pinball Wizard in all his majesty.
RATING: A 5 ON A SCALE OF 1-TO-5.
STRAY DOG THEATRE
VENUE: TOWER GROVE ABBEY, 2336 TENNESSEE AVENUE
DATES: OCT. 14, 15, 20, 21, 22
TICKETS: $18-$20; 865-1995 OR STRAYDOGTHEATRE.ORG