The Who’s Tommy was first presented in Melbourne at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1973, but this dazzling, fully staged production by Victorian Opera can rightly be called a premiere – it is a very different version and one that takes full advantage of the technical wizardry of modern theatre.
Judging from the cheers when the first chord was struck, The Who’s Tommy continues to attract a host of admirers. By the end of the show, the rowdy standing ovation was further evidence that modern audiences can be bowled over by the music, the story and a thoroughly professional performance crackling with the dynamic energy worthy of this iconic rock opera.
With music and lyrics by Pete Townshend and additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon, the story has evolved into an ultimate message of hope that remains relevant and continues to be consoling to many. It is shocking, poignant and in essential respects recognisable. As a four-year-old, Tommy is traumatised by witnessing, via a reflection in the mirror, the murder of his mother’s new partner by his father, who has returned from a long internment in a World War 2 prisoner of war camp and believed to be dead. Deaf, dumb and blind, he suffers further trauma as a ten-year-old at the hands of his paedophile Uncle Bertie and sadistic Cousin Kevin. After a climactic scene in which his frustrated parents drive him to quite literally smash his way through his pain, further enlightenment comes when Tommy witnesses the cruel treatment a young fan. He is able to reject the pressures and expectations of others, who seek to exploit his celebrity as a pinball wizard, and live on his own terms as an integrated personality.
For Victorian Opera, the Creatives have combined to produce an ingeniously powerful theatrical experience. The action took place on a minimalist set where props were whisked in and out with maximum efficiency. Seated on a central back tier, a band of a mere eight musicians – three keyboards (with Musical Director Jack Earle on Keyboard 1), drums (an indefatigable Kieran Rafferty), electric bass and guitars – generated a sonic storm, albeit with lulls in moments of pathos, featuring acoustic guitar with external mic. Above the band, a giant screen enclosed the back of the stage, providing backdrops for the various scenes and reflections of Tommy’s emotional state. It is well nigh impossible to describe the amount of visual interest and attention to intelligent detail invested in Jamie Clennett’s creation of the kaleidoscopic, constantly evolving panoramas. Matt Scott’s brilliant general lighting design amped up the impact even further, creating electrifying rock and roll energy and flavour. One of the many highlights was the drenching acid green illumination as Paul Capsis strutted his riveting no-holds-barred stuff as the Gypsy “Acid Queen” – a real trip in itself.
Costume designer Isaac Lumnis really needed all of those seventeen costumiers listed in the program. As we watched events unfold, with dates registered on the screens, the many costumes reflected the relevant styles superbly. Tommy’s final coat of mirror fragments was a perfect complement to the screen visuals depicting Tommy’s shattered, disintegrated life. Not only the clothes, but also the hairstyles changed with the passing decades – as did Dana Jolly’s sizzling choreography. The dancers’ level of fitness was astonishing, their ability to dance so energetically while singing defying belief. Even most of the main characters displayed exceptional physical skill, most notably Vincent Hooper as the cruel Cousin Kevin. A big stage personality with a fabulous voice, Hooper was a powerhouse of concentrated aggression.
As Tommy’s equally repellant abuser, Kanen Breen’s bad Uncle Ernie, the self-hating drunken child molester and parasitic exploiter of the older pinball wizard Tommy, combined his singing and dancing skills to produce a horribly compelling performance – at once funny and unnervingly repulsive.
Principals Matt Hetherington (Captain James Walker), and Amy Lehpamer (Mrs Walker), and Mark Doggett, Mark Hill, Nicole Melloy and John O’Hara (members of the Featured Ensemble, who assumed various roles) all impressed with their variety of polished theatre skills.
In the overlapping roles of Narrator and the oldest of the three Tommys, Mat Verevis was consistently engaging, singing one of the key numbers, “See me, feel me” with poignant sensitivity. Elijah Slavinskis as the ten-year-old Tommy has a difficult role as the victim of the predatory uncle and cousin. Roger Hodgman’s expert direction ensured a safe space for Slavinskis to play the part convincingly. A very sweet and innocent looking Hamilton Binnie Garcia completed the Tommy trio, although I wondered why he did not appear to be included in in the family reunion scene.
Now that all those frustrating delays caused by the pandemic have finally been surmounted, everything seemed to go without a hitch in this thrilling, fast-moving, complex production. It is an extraordinary achievement worthy of every single star of a five star rating. Don’t miss it!
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Heather Leviston reviewed the opening night of “The Who’s Tommy” presented by Victorian Opera at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, on February 22, 2022.