See me, hear me: The Who’s Tommy in Woodstock

Pinball lads Julian Sarria, Charles O’Connor and Nick Raynor  in Tommy at the Woodstock Playhouse (photo by Leslie Dawson)

Pinball lads Julian Sarria, Charles O’Connor and Nick Raynor in Tommy at the Woodstock Playhouse (photo by Leslie Dawson)

Remember the first time you heard the Who’s breakthrough 1969 double album Tommy, the work for which the term “rock opera” was coined? With the possible exception of the song suite “A Quick One while He’s Away” on a 1966 LP by the same band, The Who Sell Out (which also tells a story of a woman’s infidelity to a husband missing and believed dead), we had never heard anything like it before.

Folks who only know Tommy from the hit singles that it generated, and that still get airplay on oldies/classic rock stations – “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,” “I’m Free” – may think that it’s just an upbeat, if slightly quirky, tale of a deaf, dumb and blind pinball savant. But listen to the whole thing, and you’ll hear a much darker allegory that on one level is about the corruption that accompanies commercial success in the music business, and on another powerfully explores the sense of helplessness experienced by abused children.

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Tommy wasn’t just the first rock LP to tell a coherent story from beginning to end; it was also the first time – six years before A Chorus Line came out – that a major pop-culture phenomenon acknowledged the existence of child sexual exploitation by family members. It took decades for the work’s primary composer, Pete Townshend, to tell the full story of his own experiences of being abused at age 6 by his psychotic grandmother and her boyfriends; but clearly, even in 1969 he had personal demons that needed purging through song.

The brainy Townshend went on to devote much of his earnings as a rock star to philanthropy benefiting children, and wrote impassioned essays against their sexual exploitation. Ironically, it was in researching the online kiddie porn industry while trying to start up a not-for-profit organization to fight it that he got ensnared by a British government sting operation and publicly smeared as a pedophile himself. Only then was he ready to go public about the model for Tommy’s “wicked Uncle Ernie” in his own formative years.

So what do you do with Uncle Ernie, and with Tommy’s sadistic Cousin Kevin, when you’re trying to turn a rock opera about an extraordinarily dysfunctional family (including a father who has literally gotten away with murder) into the kind of feel-good product that people want to experience when they go to see a musical? That’s the challenge that Pete Townshend and director Des McAnuff – then artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse – took on in 1992 when they decided to adapt Tommy for the stage. And it’s part of the puzzle that any summer rep company, including the Woodstock Playhouse, must address when it decides to revive The Who’s Tommy.

Hearing the somewhat sketchy narrative of the rock opera rendered in big voices trained in musical theatre techniques, instead of the reedy pipes of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, takes a bit of getting used to if you grew up on the original. But the translation to the stage seems to have worked, in the main: The 1993 Broadway production won Tony Awards for Best Direction for McAnuff, Best Original Score for Townshend, plus three others for Choreography, Scenic and Lighting Design.

If you go see the production that’s currently running at the Woodstock Playhouse, you’ll quickly discover that many details have been changed from the rock opera. As in Ken Russell’s over-the-top 1975 movie version, the timeframe has been changed: Captain Walker disappears behind enemy lines during the second World War, not the first. This rescues the story from the weirdly telescoped 20th century of the original, but requires tweaking the song “1921” to represent Mrs. Walker’s age as “Twenty-One,” instead of reflecting the year of Captain Walker’s return.

That’s a rather minor quibble, though; much more significant are the changes to the ending of the story. Instead of being a (literally) throwaway character, Sally Simpson becomes Tommy’s hitherto-nonexistent love interest. Somebody must have figured that you simply can’t have a stage musical without a romance. And the big finale number, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” changes the character of the healed Tommy in a radical way. In the original version, Tommy’s acolytes turn against him when he tries to make them replicate his childhood trauma and subsequent enlightenment by covering their eyes, ears and mouths and playing pinball all day long. The stage version makes the hero more sympathetic: He tries to persuade his followers that they already have what he lacked, and just need to learn to appreciate their normality, instead of treating him like a guru with some arcane secret.

In both cases, Tommy’s followers rebel violently, and he regresses to his previous state of catatonic helplessness (reintroduction of the actors playing Tommy at ages 4 and 10 to reprise “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” works brilliantly here). But somehow an upbeat sense of closure trumps the pathos as Tommy forgives his tormentors, embraces his family and the whole cast turns to break through the fourth wall, singing “Listening to you, I get the music/Gazing at you, I get the heat…” directly to the audience. It’s not exactly what we expected, but it works.

The stage version adds a courtroom scene and one new song, “I Believe My Own Eyes,” written by Townshend to flesh out Tommy’s parents and make them a wee bit more sympathetic, plus a fair bit of additional lyrics to other songs. Seeing the story told visually definitely helps clarify some plot points that were vague in the original – where, for instance, the killing of Mrs. Walker’s lover happens between the lines of “1921,” and we have to deduce for ourselves that 4-year-old Tommy witnessed the event in the mirror that, way more than a pinball machine, becomes the keystone symbol of the whole narrative.

If I have one criticism of the Woodstock Playhouse production, it concerns the set design. When Mrs. Walker was wheeled out in a really neat antique wheelchair in the maternity hospital scene, my hopes were raised that we’d get to see some equally nice vintage pinball machines later on, but it was not to be. The pinball machines, and the wardrobe holding the iconic mirror as well, looked thrown together from cheap plywood with unfinished edges. The mirror itself was a sheet of shiny plasticized cloth that simply didn’t bear the amount of focus placed upon it in the story.

But don’t let that minor weakness keep you away from this otherwise-excellent production. The cast is very strong, loaded with excellent dancers and singers, and the choreography is spirited and tightly executed. The outstanding pit band rocks out tirelessly (and without benefit of overdubbing) throughout this demanding evening’s worth of high-energy music.

Vocal standouts included Kayleen Seidl as Mrs. Walker – who has a lot of heavy lifting to do in this score – and Robby Haltiwanger in the title role, who wields plenty of presence and athleticism along with a clear and impassioned tenor. Cameron Hill brings what sounds like a gospel-trained set of pipes to the Acid Queen; but any actress/singer who undertakes this thankless part, however talented, labors in the shadow of Tina Turner, who put her defining stamp on the role in the movie version. Charles O’Connor is a spiritedly nasty Cousin Kevin – depicted in the stage version as considerably older than the object of his bullying ways – and dances with insouciant fervor.

Inevitably we have to come back around to the knotty Uncle Ernie problem. What on Earth do you do with a drunken child molester in a bouncy musical? How can you make such a skeevy character seem redeemable at the end? And not to put too fine a point on it, how exactly do you direct your actor to “Fiddle About”?

In this production at least, the approach is to make Uncle Ernie a streetwise comic scoundrel in the great British tradition of characters like Falstaff and Fagin, Gulley Jimson and Sebastian Dangerfield, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and Mundungus Fletcher. And the molestation scene is handled rather abstractly, with a teddy bear substituting symbolically for Tommy as Uncle Ernie’s victim. It doesn’t entirely work, but that’s not the fault of the actor saddled with the queasy role: Matthew Curiano has considerable comedic gifts, and he definitely gives it his all.

For all the little ways in which The Who’s Tommy is an attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole, they haven’t fiddled about with it overmuch, and it remains a solidly entertaining evening of theatre. You’ll walk out feeling at least a bit uplifted, and likely singing some of those perennially catchy power-pop songs on your way home. You can still see it beginning at 8 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday, August 7 to 10.

The Who’s Tommy, Wednesday-Saturday, August 7-10, 8 p.m., $40, Woodstock Playhouse, 103 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock; (845) 679-6900, https://woodstockplayhouse.org.