In 1969, Peter Townshend of the British band The Who wrote a rock opera which was recorded by his group in a double album. It was titled “Tommy.” Six years later, British director Ken Russell took the album to a new format — the movies — rearranged the songs — and the plot — and released it as “The Who’s Tommy.” It took 18 years for that film to become a theatrical production. Re-written again, this time by Townshend and director Des McAnuff, it also shuffled songs and plot and hit Broadway in 1993, eventually earning a total of five Tony Awards and cementing a place for “The Who’s Tommy” in the annals of musical history.
It is this version that opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich. It may not be strictly an opera, although there is very little dialogue, but it does keep the audience on its toes, if only trying to figure out just exactly what it is trying to say — or sing. Is it an allegory and, if so, does that designation hold true from prologue to finale, or is it just the story of a young boy, struck deaf, dumb and blind by witnessing a murder (and by his parents’ insistence that he didn’t hear or see it and cannot say anything about it) and how he eventually broke out of his catatonic shell, rose to become leader of a cult and finally decided that simple home and family were all he wanted. You really can go a little nuts trying to make “Tommy” fit into any mold. As presented by the talented company at The Barn, it is best just to sit back and recognize much of the score that included several Top 10 singles in the ’70s, especially “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” and applaud the excellent vocal talents that recreate the complex characters. From Barn veterans Penelope Alex and Eric Parker as Tommy’s greatly flawed parents, to apprentices Aaron Velthouse as his sadistic Cousin Kevin and guest artist Brooke Evans as the frightening Gypsy (“Acid Queen”), the cast of 30+ gives it their all. Special applause to Eric Morris as the “Narrator/Tommy” who begins as a figure in the all-important mirror and rides a pinball machine to celebrity status before finally finding freedom. It is a demanding role and Morris delivers a strong performance although sometimes pushing so hard vocally that it becomes harsh and difficult to understand (a requisite when the lyrics tell the story).
Morris is preceded in Tommy’s white suit by two boys, young Jacob Ragotzy and younger Reece Chapman, as Tommy at ages 10 and 4, respectively. Both do remarkably well, especially Ragotzy, who is abused and literally thrown around by his pedophile Uncle Ernie (Gregg Rehreg) and Cousin Kevin as he struggles to survive puberty, escape his catatonic state and achieve pinball wizardry. The excellent seven piece orchestra, under the direction of John Jay Espino, was a very happy surprise. The rock score was handled with a minimum of blatant blare. Instead, it offered soloists and ensemble the proper support and interpreted the strictly instrumental passages intelligently. The only problem was with the microphones worn by every principal player which tended to muddy their voices in lower ranges. It is a problem that should be under control after one or two more performances. Although I’m still trying to figure out the underlying allegorical meaning of “The Who’s Tommy,” I’ve decided it’s best just to sit back and listen at face value.
NOTE: There is a very large, very loud explosion in Act II which is not announced prior to the show. Be prepared.
“The Who’s Tommy” plays through Aug. 9 with shows at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday in the theater on M-96. Tickets are $29, For reservations call (269) 731-4121 daily or visit www.barntheatre.com.