Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Tommy!"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


music and lyrics by Pete Townshend

book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon

directed by Jared Coseglia; choreographed by Julian Alexander Barnett

Tommy (child) … Alexander Hill
Captain Walker … James Barry
Mrs. Walker … Stephanie Girard
Uncle Ernie … Dalane Mason
Minister/Specialist … Michael Baker
Lover/Reporter … Elizabeth Fye
Tommy (adult) … Cory Grant
Tommy (teen) … Julian Alexander Barnett
Sergeant/Acid Queen … Thay Floyd
Cousin Kevin … Christopher Mowod
Sally Simpson … Jennifer Wren
Kevin’s Crew/Ensemble … Stefan Basti
Nurse/Kevin’s Crew/Soda Pop Girl/Ensemble … Jessica Healy
Kevin’s Crew/Butler/Ensemble … Aric Martin
Nurse/Kevin’s Crew/Soda Pop Girl/Ensemble … Stacey Sund
Ensemble … Rebecca Leigh Coffey; Maggie Colburn; Lindsey Larkin; Sarabeth Wager

Keyboard … Ken Clark
Guitars … Joe Jung; Joseph Therrien
Drums … Joshua Tussin
Bass … Jim Bruenn
Trumpet … Benjamin M. Rosenblatt

“My earliest memory of The Who is seeing a clip on television of Pete Townshend smashing his guitar into his amplifier at the end of a set. So, when I began working on this adaptation of TOMMY, I was first drawn to the violence.” ­ from the Director’s Notes.

The year 2003 is fast becoming for me the Year of Seeing Red, i.e., directors doing as they please with scripts regardless of the creator’s intentions. This year I’ve seen Dürrenmatt, Chekhov and Shakespeare misinterpreted, sometimes beyond recognition, and I in turn have been criticized by those outraged at my outrage. The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of the rock-opera TOMMY, now closed, might have won converts for my stance that the director is the servant of the play and not a visionary wallowing in his/her own indulgences: director Jared Coseglia took Peter Townshend’s now-classic tale of a boy traumatized into blind-, deaf- and dumbness and becoming a Pinball Wizard and turned it into an over-amplified, angry punk version, with a heavy nod to Michael Jackson --- the final cherry being the hate-filled (and hateful) Tommy shot and killed by Sally Simpson soon after he had beaten her to a pulp. Those who know the original Who recording and/or the revised Broadway version (which I’m told was uplifting and exhilarating) would have had good reason to cry along with me, “ENOUGH!” (Mr. Townshend’s smashing his guitar in concert should not be seen as the key to his work; said smashing was probably part of the performance --- plus he revised the Broadway ending so that Tommy wants to be like everyone else, not have others become like him) I don't feel sorry for Mr. Coseglia’s energetic young cast who had the stamina to hop and spin non-stop like kernels in a popper; no, my heart went out to the audience on the night I attended, composed mainly of senior citizens and kidz --- the former, turned to stone by the noise and violence; the latter, who may not know the original work, passively accepting what they saw and heard (how does the real world look through their MTV eyes?).

What was Mr. Coseglia trying to say with TOMMY? That violence breeds violence? That celebrity comes with a terrible, vengeful price to pay? Or to make a 35-year-old work “accessible” for the MTV generation? (Stage works do become dated and after awhile will resist tinkering --- directors need to recognize this.) For whatever reason, the interpretations began: Father shot Mother’s lover (here, a woman) then planted the gun in young Tommy’s hand and convinced him that he (Tommy) pulled the trigger, leading to the boy’s trauma; Cousin Kevin brought in boarding-school cronies to help him torment middle Tommy, which climaxed with them dunking his head in a toilet; middle Tommy humped his pinball machine en route to orgasm; Uncle Ernie raped the middle Tommy (as written) but by show’s end, the grown Tommy clearly had an itch for him; grown Tommy’s “I’m Free” was sung with the ferocity of King Kong tearing open those jungle gates; Cousin Kevin battered Uncle Ernie to death with a baseball bat; ending, as mentioned, with the Tommy-Sally-gun finale. (A fellow Flower-Child said afterwards, “If I’d known this is what they were doing, I wouldn’t have wanted to go.”)

Yet, amidst all the meanness and excess, Mr. Coseglia and choreographer Julian Alexander Barnett (the hyperkinetic middle Tommy) came up with a breathtaking sequence that demanded to be preserved on film; indeed, its fluidity was cinematic: (a) young Tommy sits downstage, taking photos with his Polaroid while Mother and Lover smooch upstage; (b) Father enters; Mother and Lover separate; Lover tries to shield young Tommy from the unstoppable violence; (c) Father shoots Lover, who drops dead at young Tommy’s feet; young Tommy, numb, turns to face the audience (i.e, his mirror); (d) Father takes the camera from young Tommy’s hand and replaces it with the gun; (e) reporters, doctors, etc. rush in; cameras go off; two white coats enter with a stretcher and remove the Lover; (f) young Tommy is told “you didn’t see it”, etc.; (g) young Tommy becomes deaf, dumb and blind --- and, then, the Messrs. Coseglia and Barnett staged the entire sequence BACKWARDS (Elizabeth Fye’s Lover stunned as she rose exactly as she had fallen --- how did she do it?) and re-climaxing with Father replacing the gun in young Tommy’s hand with the camera --- meanwhile, the grown Tommy was “born” upstage to act as young and middle Tommy’s sealed-off subconscious until his turn to take the stage. A brilliant interpretative moment; if only Mr. Coseglia could have provided more of them --- and quietly, too….

Cory Grant, who has a rocker’s voice and presence, is to be commended for following his director’s instructions to make the plaintive, radiant Tommy totally unlovable --- an anti-accomplishment. Tall, lanky Dalane Mason, good-looking in a Dr. Seuss-sort of way, was allowed some wit as Uncle Ernie, especially when donning a top hat and yellow tails for “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”, but the true dazzler was Thay Floyd as the Acid Queen: clad in an S&M harness and brandishing endless talons from which his/her customers sucked his/her poison, Mr. Floyd was sassy, slinky and outrageous --- Mr. Coseglia’s production was a smeared palette but Mr. Floyd, in his one number, was a sudden, vibrant splash of color.

"Tommy" (16 July - 2 August)
The Unicorn Theatre ­ The Larry Vaber Stage , 797 Main Street, Stockbridge, MA
1 (413) 298-5576

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