My first experience with Tommy came in 1978, when the Ken Russell film made a completely unexpected appearance at the cinema in Toms River, NJ, where I was spending a week with my grandmother. It was the pre-MTV era when my beloved rock and roll was hardly ever on television, and even more rarely seen at the movie theater (midnight movies are useless to a ten-year old), and I’m sure I begged on hands and knees until she agreed to take me. The experience left her completely traumatized – most of the movies we went to see in those days did not contain scenes of helpless children being raped and tortured by their own family – but turned me into a Who fan for life. It’s easily the best of the rock operas, the most authentically operatic (proper use of recitatives and leitmotifs), the most dramatically solid, and the most rocking, particularly as performed by the Who at the time of its 1969 release.
At its heart, Tommy is a melodrama that gets its power from the key theme of great opera – betrayal. Forced to watch his presumed-dead father kill his mom’s new boyfriend, and told never to speak of it, the child gets a mental block that renders him deaf, dumb and blind, helpless in the face of rape and torture, unable to process any of the sensations he experiences. He’s betrayed by his parents, who take him to all manner of hustlers in the search for a cure, and leave him to the tender mercies of his Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie, who seize on him as the ideal victim. After he regains consciousness, he becomes a guru-like figure with a huge following, who eventually betray him en masse, once they finally hear his message. It’s a real opera, and should be a natural for the stage.
But as a longtime fan, I was skeptical when it was adapted for Broadway, which is typically fairly grandma-friendly territory. And I wasn’t a fan after seeing the 1999 appearance by the Broadway cast and its multimillion dollar production. But in its current run at the Met Theater, the DOMA Theatre Company prove it is possible to effectively communicate the power of Pete Townshend’s work in a smaller room, with more modest production values.
The relatively spare staging and visual effects used in the DOMA production might actually be part of the improvement. Most of the attempts to install iconic visuals on the music of Tommy have been laughably corny. The focus here remains firmly on the music, performed by a solid, sympathetic rock band, and the characters, portrayed by a company that’s never less than capable and sometimes outstanding. Karl Maschek’s portrayal of Uncle Ernie as the lovable pedophile was masterful, surely one of the trickiest roles to pull off without sending the grandmas in the room off screaming. “Fiddle About” remains an uncomfortable scene, but it’s not played for laughs, nor is the ick factor cranked. Max Salinger’s turn as Young Tommy was fantastically blank. Jess Ford is strong in the title role, with a clear, powerful voice. And Christina Dohmen as the Acid Queen – actually the program notes rename her “Gypsy,” one of many small rewrites in the name of family-friendliness – was the standout singer of the evening.
I have to say this skeptic’s been turned around. Even though it has a different character than the album, even though some of the songs have been re-arranged, even though some of the more intense content has been watered down (Tommy never actually gets dosed by the Acid Queen in this version, for instance – although if they were going to spare him one of his traumas, couldn’t they have had the parents walk in on Uncle Ernie before he got started instead?), I now kind of like the idea that this piece has found itself in the repertoire of modern musicals. Done thoughtfully and tastefully, it works. And it ensures Pete Townshend’s music will continue to have a live audience even when he’s not there to play it himself.
The Who’s Tommy plays at the Met Theater, 1089 N. Oxford St., Los Angeles (near Santa Monica and Western) on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, through April 15. Visit the DOMA website for tickets.