Story: Mr. Walker, a captain in the English Army during World War II, is missing in action and presumed dead, or so says the military messenger who visits Mrs. Walker one fateful day. Devastated, she takes solace in her only child, Tommy, who was born shortly after Walker left for the battle front.
As four years go by, Mrs. Walker finds romance with a new lover in the absence of her long-missing husband. When the war concludes, however, Captain Walker surprisingly arrives home, confronts his wife’s lover and kills him in a struggle.
After 4-year-old Tommy witnesses the killing, his parents advise him to “disremember” the murder. The traumatized boy then sinks into a catatonic state, unable to see, hear or speak.
Despite advice from numerous physicians, Tommy remains uncommunicative. Encounters with his perverted Uncle Ernie, his bullying cousin Kevin and others only send Tommy further into himself.
Eventually, though, Tommy develops the singular talent of swaying to the vibrations of the pinball machine at which he excels, building a considerable reputation for his unmatched skill. A cult following begins to form around the “deaf, dumb and blind boy” in his “quiet vibration land,” as Tommy takes on messianic status.
Will anyone ever be able to break through and communicate with Tommy? And what will happen when his adoring public discovers they may not really be happy if their unusual hero lets them down? How can he be saved?
Highlights: Stray Dog Theatre opens its 17th season with a new version of one of the most stunning productions in its history, the rock opera Tommy. This rendition is fresh, imaginative and fully captures the infectious energy of Pete Townshend’s rock music classic half a century after The Who’s memorable double album was released in 1969.
Other Info: In his program notes, director Justin Been ruminates about why he decided to return to a show he’d already co-helmed (with artistic director Gary Bell) in 2011 (a production named the best in St. Louis that year by Ladue News).
The 50th anniversary of the release of the original album is an ideal time to celebrate the intriguing music and lyrics of Townshend’s watershed rock masterpiece. While the background story of Tommy differs somewhat from the original album to the 1975 movie version and also the Broadway musical from 1993, the gist of the tale is the same in all incarnations: The development of Tommy from his shell-shocked state to one of awareness and acceptance.
The musical features Townshend’s music and lyrics as well as a book by Townshend and Des McAnuff, with additional lyrics and music by Who originals John Entwistle and Keith Moon. It ran for more than 900 total performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Direction and Best Choreography.
While Been’s 2011 production had a steampunk theme, this time around scenic designer Josh Smith’s wildly imaginative set borrows a page from the arresting 1982 science-fiction film Tron (shrewdly observed by my friend Ryan on opening night). Its geometrical patterns and shapes blend brilliantly with designer Tyler Duenow’s intricate tapestry of lighting and the ‘1984’ look behind Eileen Engel’s costumes, a blend of military and rebel attire.
Been places the band front and center of the action on stage, where music director Jennifer Buchheit helms her spirited musicians from the keyboard. She’s joined by horn player and keyboardist John Gerdes, drummer Bradley Martin, M. Joshua Ryan on bass, guitarist John J. Reitano and guitarist Adam Rugo, whose animated performance enhances the entire presentation.
Been coaxes several terrific performances, although unfortunately some of the players lack the vocal range to hit the right notes. Two standout performances, however, by Kevin Corpuz in the title role and Tristan Davis as cousin Kevin, propel the show’s energetic and pulsating pace.
Davis’ work is so compelling, in fact, that it’s disappointing he doesn’t continue to sing solo on the Act I closer and rock anthem, Pinball Wizard. His soaring vocal ability is matched by a precise acting performance which underscores Kevin’s venal machinations without resorting to caricature.
Corpuz displays a powerfully persuasive voice as Tommy, both in his narrative scenes overlooking two younger versions of himself and also later as the grown Tommy. He roams Smith’s wonderful set with abandon on the knee-slapping tune, Sensation, as well as other numbers.
Been puts the aisles of Tower Grove Abbey to fine use with his ensemble cavorting around the premises on several numbers accentuated by Mike Hodges’ precise, structured choreography, which makes optimal use of the surroundings.
The (mostly) dazzling supporting cast includes Jeff Wright as the seedy hawker, a medical specialist and some other roles, as well as Engel, who lends her capable soprano to the part of Tommy’s loving admirer, Sally Simpson, in the number of the same name.
Phil Leveling and Kelly Howe do solid work as Captain and Mrs. Walker while Cory Frank conveys the lecherous intentions of alcoholic Uncle Ernie. Alora Marguerite Walsby and Leo Taghert do justice to the roles of Tommy at age 4 and Tommy at age 10, respectively.
Contributing to the ensemble’s expressive efforts are Molly Marie Meyer, Kellen Green, Clayton Humburg, Dawn Schmid, Sara Rae Womack, Jordan Wolk, Kevin O’Brien, Brenda Bass and Angela Bubash.
It seems amazing that Tommy has been around now for half a century. Been’s creative new interpretation of Townshend’s remarkable accomplishment shows how it hasn’t lost its luster in the ensuing decades.
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee
Dates: October 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Dan Donovan