The Stratford Files: The Who’s Tommy

The Who’s Tommy is a fantastic, well-choreographed, flashy, and surprisingly emotionally-deep musical.
The Who’s classic album Tommy follows a “blind, deaf and dumb” boy named Tommy who is, for much of his youth, faced with traumatic abuse. He eventually frees himself from his condition and becomes a rock star
First and foremost, the play is technically stunning. It has some of the best effects in theatre today and uses them to its advantage, not only succeeding on a technical level, but also on an emotional and psychological one. The set designer, John Arnone, really has to be congratulated.
The play adds extra layers to the already-brilliant album, giving each character much more depth than what was in the original. Of particular note are Tommy’s three main tormentors: Uncle Ernie, Cousin Kevin, and The Acid Queen all are given more depth. In the original, they are all rather one-note, even having a line that establishes that they know how awful they are. Uncle Ernie starts his song with
“I’m your wicked uncle Ernie
I’m glad you won’t see or hear me
As I fiddle about,
Fiddle about,
Fiddleabout”
Whereas in this version we actually see what caused him to become what he is now. His act torments him. When he calls himself “your wicked uncle Ernie” he’s speaking ironically. We see that The Acid Queen isn’t really the super powerful and witchlike character she claims to be. She is, in fact, a normal prostitute who faces all the problems you’d expect, being both hooked on drugs and beaten by her pimp. Finally cousin Kevin, who in the original is just a sadistic bully, is portrayed as (while still a bully) also a troubled youth who is desperately trying to fit in. The other characters are expanded on, too. In the original, Tommy’s parents seem stupid – inept to an almost ridiculous degree. Not only that, but their treatment of Tommy borders on being outright malicious. Here, they are still none to bright, but most of the problems they cause are accidents and they are genuinely well-meaning. For example, in The Acid Queen sequence, they don’t actually have Tommy sleep with The Acid Queen like they did in the original. Tommy himself is much more complicated. In the original, after he frees himself from his condition, he becomes a messianic figure and it is the world’s mistake to reject him when they find out that his religion is actually hard. Here, it’s all very different. He feels totally lost because of the trauma he endured and how he was forced to live. He wants to learn from other people how he can be normal.
The actors are all excellent. On the day I saw the play, there were a lot of understudies onstage, so I will mark all the actors who are understudies with an asterisks. ___ gives an interesting performance as… there are three actors for tommy depending what year its supposed to be. They are excellent, but since the younger actors spend almost all of their time staring blankly forward due to the circumstances, the one who stands out the most is Robert Markus who captures both the character’s angst and the charisma that draws people to him. Mathew Armet* does a fantastic job of portraying Captain Walker showing both the comical and the serious side to his character. Kira Guloien does a similarly good job as Mrs. Walker, while also showing a more aggressive side in the song Smash The Mirror.Gabriel Antonacci* does a great job portraying cousin Kevin, adding a certain childlike quality to the character that is mixed with a somewhat lizard-like appearance making the character both humorously nasty and quite sympathetic. Steve Ross also does a great job as uncle Ernie making a character who could easily be completely unlikable both amusing and occasionally sympathetic. His dance in the song Tommy’s Holiday Camp is particularly impressive. Finally, Jewelle Blackman does a great job portraying the Acid Queen and really sells the few scenes she appears in.
The Who’s tommy is a spectacular play that has to be seen to be believed. It is highly, highly recommended.

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