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The Who’s Tommy
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 Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2019

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

For its latest production, Stray Dog Theatre is bringing back a show they first staged 8 years ago. Although I didn’t see that production, I’ve heard some glowing comments about it, so I’m not entirely surprised they would want to produce it again. Now, the company has restaged The Who’s Tommy with a new look and concept, and an excellent cast, particularly in terms of the three performers playing the title role at different ages.

Legendary British rock group The Who first produced their rock opera Tommy as a concept album in 1969. It has since been adapted into a trippy movie directed by Ken Russell in 1975, and later into a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Each version has been altered in various ways from the original album, and I hadn’t seen the stage show before this latest production from SDT, although I had seen the film roughly 30 years ago. What I remember most is the iconic rock score, featuring hits like “Pinball Wizard”, and much of that score is featured here. The story focuses on the life of Tommy Walker (played from young adulthood by Kevin Corpuz), who is born in England in the early years of World War II and suffers a traumatic incident involving his parents (Kelly Howe, Phil Leveling) and his mother’s lover (Jordan Wolk) when he is four years old (played by Alora Marguerite Walsby). As a result, Tommy loses the ability to see, speak, and hear, and grows up experiencing the world using his other senses and emotions. He’s further abused and bullied by other relatives, including his creepy, alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Cory Frank) and his opportunistic Cousin Kevin (Tristan Davis), and taken by his parents to various doctors and others offering “cures” for Tommy (played at age 10 by Leo Taghert). Eventually, Tommy is introduced to pinball by his cousin, and he displays a surprising and remarkable talent for the game, causing a sensation and attracting fans and followers. He then becomes something of a cult figure for a lot of his fans, and he has to figure out what to do about that and come to terms with his own past, present, and future.

The entire technical side of this production is stunning, especially in the visuals. This production is given a unique design that gives it more of a futuristic look rather than the 1940s–1960s time frame would suggest. This look goes especially well with the rock music score and overall mysterious tone of the piece. There’s a fluorescent neon look to Eileen Engel’s costumes that gives them a striking appearance and works well with Josh Smith’s concert-stage like multilevel set, Justin Been’s dazzling kaleidoscopic projections, and Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting. The driving score is played with style by the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, with particular kudos going to guitar players Adam Rugo and John J. Reitano, who give the music much of its power. The only occasional drawback to the sheer volume of everything is that sometimes the words to the songs can be lost under the music, especially in the ensemble numbers, and with a show like this that is mostly sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, it’s especially essential to be able to hear the lyrics.

The casting is especially strong here, led by the three performers who play Tommy as he grows up. Corpuz, as the adult Tommy and “guiding voice” for his younger versions, gives a commanding performance, with strong stage presence and a powerful voice that fits the score well. The younger Tommys are just as good, too, from Walsby’s mostly silent performance and very credible reactions to Taghert’s journey as the youthful Tommy goes through a series of traumatic encounters and finally finds his talent. All three of these actors are the heart of this show, and much of the dramatic weight rests on them. There are also strong showings from Howe and Leveling as Tommy’s parents, Frank as the smarmy Uncle Ernie, Davis in a particularly well-sung turn as Cousin Kevin, Engel as a determined young fan of Tommy’s named Sally Simpson, and Jeffrey M. Wright in several roles. The ensemble is also strong all around, vocally and in demonstrating Mike Hodges’ energetic choreography.

The Who’s Tommy has something of a rock concert feel to it, as is fitting with the show’s origins. Still, there is a compelling story here, told by a bold, bright, futuristic-looking production led by a particularly strong trio of title performers. It’s another memorable musical from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Who’s Tommy at Tower Grove Abbey until October 26, 2019

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