Many people credit The Who as one of their favorite rock bands. Maybe you like their music as the theme song for your favorite CSI: series. One thing the Who should probably get credit for is creating the first rock opera to make it to the stage. Tommy started out as a concept album before becoming a stage show, and then becoming a super trippy movie. It’s a show that polarizes theater audiences; more for Rent or Rocky Horror lovers than, say, West Side Story fans. Its insanely fun rock score and unique imagery make it a favorite for many, and the students at Point Park have just opened their fun production last weekend.
The tale surrounds Tommy and the many tragic events in his childhood. In 1940’s London Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, is declared missing in action before Tommy is born. Years later this is proven to be false as the Captain shows up and surprises Mrs. Walker-and her new lover. In the ensuing struggle the man is shot, and the Walkers convince young Tommy (who witnessed it) that he didn’t see or hear anything. This causes Tommy to go inside himself and no longer react to anything around him, nor does he speak. Eventually he is summed up as a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who will one day play a mean pinball. He endures further physical and sexual abuse at the hands of relatives, and by the time he reaches adulthood he is renowned for his pinball playing skills.
For act one the adult Tommy (Lamont Walker II) appears as a spiritual narrator for the audience, guiding him through his traumatic childhood while younger actors (Primo Jenkins, then Gabriel Florentino) portray him as he grows up. While most younger performers have a solid classical tone to their singing voice, Mr. Walker sheds that for powerful rock-type vocals. Emotion overtakes his songs, and the audience absorbs all the anguish and frustration (and occasional joy) that Tommy puts out. Matt Calvert and Kyley Klass have a tough challenge as Tommy’s parents, who I would say are harder to pin down as characters (for example, are they horrible people or not?). It’s a challenge both for acting and singing, but the two are game for it and get moments to shine, particularly Klass when Mrs. Walker loses it in “Smash the Mirror.”
The rest of the large ensemble is brimming with talent. The dancing is positively electric, with the whole lot of them putting 110% into it. Strong vocals are scattered throughout the cast, particularly the crazy belting of abusive Cousin Kevin (David Lindsay) and the unsettling drugged-fueled Acid Queen (Markia Washington). Kevin Gilmond does a great turn as evil Uncle Ernie, bringing some tight vocals and odd sort of charisma to the skeeziest character in the show. I’ll also give a shoutout to the awesome harmonies provided by Jared Roberts and Brenden Henderson in “Eyesight to the Blind” and, of course, the trio of Kurt Kemper, Jack Holmes, and David Lindsay who kick off the well-known act one closer “Pinball Wizard”. You can mine the show for all sorts of good music moments like this, but these are the ones that particularly stuck with me.
When it comes to the message of Tommy, my first instinct is to mention the obvious effects of child abuse and neglect. As a crowd of happy people party around him at Christmastime, little Tommy sits staring straight ahead while his parents wonder what’s wrong. They’re expecting an emotional response from him that they’re not getting. Not once do his parents think that maybe they are the reason for his condition. They want him to get better, but they also don’t protect him. Instead they drag him to specialists and doctors, and when Tommy is finally “free” and becomes a pinball sensation, his family is right there to profit from his fame. The Walkers come off as narcissistic and uncaring, even though they claim to have love in their hearts for Tommy (again, I think they’re very complicated roles).
The production makes a few social points as well by having Tommy portrayed as a black man to white parents. His family’s treatment of him creates a dark and unsafe world for Tommy, similar to how the world can seem a dangerous place for anyone who is discriminated against. The fantastic set by Britton Mauk has ropes for handrails and doorframes that fly in on shaky cables: Tommy is in an unstable environment and nowhere is safe. Other moments like Captain Walker shooting his wife’s lover (also black) and not going to prison for it are a commentary on the world today. It’s a nice touch, and a good way of keeping Tommy’s themes fresh for audiences.
I will say, being more or less unfamiliar with the material, I was thrown off by how the story just…ends. Tommy appears to be a better person at the end of the show, but I’m sorry I still can’t get past the abuse and trauma he’s endured at the hands of his family. Tommy may have made peace, but I haven’t. Couldn’t he have at least shown his creepy Uncle Ernie the door? I’ll take it up with The Who. The students of Point Park have a terrific production started, so if you’re looking for a loud and high-energy good time I’d say give Tommy a watch.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets. Tommy runs at the The Rockwell Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse through Sunday October 30. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of John Altdorfer