From a multi-platinum album, to a rock opera production, various orchestral versions, a film in 1975, and finally, a broadway musical in 1992, never have we seen so many incarnations sprout from 24 tracks of rock music, as we’ve seen in The Who’s, Tommy. So when I read that Orpheus, the second longest running musical theatre society in North America, was putting on a stage musical production of Tommy, my eyes opened wide.
Ottawa’s Orpheus prides itself in undertaking a variety of classic and contemporary musicals, but when it came to taking on a heavy-hitter like Tommy, I asked Artistic Director Michael Gareau what drew him to this particular piece.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in musical theatre in this city now for well over 40 years, I really enjoy directing, and I’m always looking for something different. I had directed a sung-through musical before (less than 2-3% spoken dialogue), but never one with a rock score.”
Tommy’s story touches on a multitude of dark issues and intense life-challenging hurdles such as physical/verbal/sexual abuse, discrimination, bullying, murder, as well as the physical conditions of blindness, hearing loss, and dumbness that inflict him in the first scene. Gareau explains how the stage production of Tommy differs somewhat from the film, as well as the challenge of conveying such emotional topics that follow a timeline of 23 years:
“The film is more of what I call on the bizarre end of things… almost from the point of view as if someone has taken a tab of acid. The musical is more of a documentary and it chronicles the events beautifully. It was often done for years as a rock concert, and not a fully staged production, so it’s interesting to view things like the inside of Tommy’s home, and what the neighbourhoods around London might have looked like back then. The show opens in 1940 and closes in 1963. As well as touching on the dark subjects themselves, I’ve tried to direct it as a story of innocence, healing, and of human spirit, where Tommy survives all these things.”
The preliminary set design from 1940’s London was perfect, and included some 3D holographic imagery. A wave of nostalgia swept over me as soon as the Overture began, which introduced a dance sequence of women seeing their men off to war, and the story began with the marriage of Capt. & Mrs. Walker (Darren Bird, Erika Séguin).
“It’s A Boy” offered some nice harmonies from the nurses, which was soon followed by the first climatic scene in the storyline – when the 4-yr. old Tommy witnesses the murder of his mother’s lover, by Tommy’s real father (which is the opposite way around in the film version). Séguin handled the magnitude of emotional challenges the scene called for convincingly.
Voices blended beautifully in “What About The Boy?” between Capt. and Mrs. Walker. I was also impressed by their performance of “Do You Think It’s Alright”, where they deliberated over leaving Tommy with his unstable Uncle Ernie (Bryan Jesmer), who was a much cleaner-cut version here than the seedier character I had expected. “I Believe My Own Eyes”, sung by the couple later on, effectively showed their exasperation over their exhausted efforts to fix Tommy’s condition.
The hospital/clinic segment early in the show, where the switchover from 4-yr. old (Lauren Samojlenko) to 10-yr. old Tommy (Ella Samojlenko) took place, was effectively done. I was impressed with how both young Tommys kept up their concentration on their catatonic states, despite the poking, prodding, and a battery of emotional activity that went on constantly around them. I especially enjoyed the short duet between 10-yr. old and adult Tommy during the reprise of “See Me, Feel Me”.
Eighteen year old Tommy (Jeremy Sanders) was seen throughout most of the show, first in a series of flashback scenes where he narrated/sung from different vantage points, including atop a pinball machine during “Sensation”, which brought full voices, bright costumes, and a great dance sequence from the lads and lasses. Authentic tones of the french horn within the 9-piece orchestra were prominent in this, as well as in much of the material.
Other standout moments for me included the Hawker (Axandre Lemours)/Harmonica Player (Andrew Galligan) in the “Eyesight To The Blind (The Hawker)” street scene, as well as the first performance of “Pinball Wizard”, sung by the three young lads (Bebe Brunjes, Jamie Rice, Morgan Coughlan), and joined by singers/dancers dressed in colourful 50’s period costumes, who brought in their great voices and a vibrant dance routine.
I was also impressed with the bullying “Cousin Kevin” scene (Morgan Coughlan), and later when he reappeared with the lads and lasses in “Tommy Can You Hear Me“, where they encircled and playfully taunted Tommy in the schoolyard, complete with the original dance routine.
Another entertaining dance sequence came with the “Pinball Wizard” reprise, heightened again with colourful costumes. The stage had been set-up with giant pinball bumpers, along with a few laser streaks along the theatre walls which were designed to give the illusion of being inside an enormous pinball machine.
Another anticipated scene, “Smash The Mirror”, saw emotions that ran high with Tommy’s mother, who tried to snap him out of his catatonic state in this climatic moment of the story. Again, Séguin added all the right pepper and strong vocals that were necessary to play out the intensity in this scene.
The character of Sally Simpson (Hannah Grant), also demonstrated some strong vocals/acting, as did the members of the ensemble during, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. The final scene’s, “Listening To You”, sung by adult Tommy, while he made his rounds of forgiveness, was built to a crescendo as each cast member added their voice into the mix until all stood together at the front of the stage.
Overall, the music itself was played very well, but lacked strength in key areas where I found sterility instead of the stimulation I was looking for. I found this also true with much of the vocals, although there were a handful of shining moments from the choir ensembles, and a few of the players, who also wore their emotional hearts on their sleeves in their acting. Generally speaking, I had hoped for a more potent level of excitement that I believe was deserving of the music and the story content. However, the set designs, costuming, and the seamless flow through the timeline were excellent, I was entertained, and thought that the tackling of such a challenging musical score, theatrical production, and storyline was a valiant effort.