It seems more and more common to portray millennials in a negative light, like Gen-X before them, to create an Us versus Them mentality. Recently though, I heard a remark which stuck with me, from a college-aged girl listening to a nearly 50 year old commencement speech. Everyone was a millennial once. I was reminded of this comment again watching Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company’s production of “The Who’s Tommy,” a piece of media also nearly 50 years old. With a cast in their late teens to early twenties, and an audience of various generations, all uniting together with the sheer power and force of this ground-breaking music, time seemed meaningless. The sound was everything.
. . .visceral, emotional, and full of life.
Based on the 1969 album “Tommy,” and incorporating certain elements from the 1975 film of the same name, “The Who’s Tommy” was adapted for the stage by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff in 1992. Expanding on the story told in the album, the rock musical follows Tommy Walker (Lamont Walker II), a rock god celebrity. We see, in vignettes and projections, scenes from his life. Born after his father (Matt Calvert) was presumed dead in World War II, young Tommy witnesses his newly returned father murder his mother’s new lover. His mother (Kyley Klass) instructs him that he neither saw nor heard the incident. This causes the young boy to go both deaf and blind, and stop speaking. Abused by his relatives, who take advantage of his catatonic state, Tommy seems to respond to only one thing: pinball. His incredible skill makes him famous, but years and years of trying to cure him drive his parents to their breaking point. When his mother shatters the living room mirror, the only thing Tommy seemed to see, he awakens, reclaiming his voice and becoming a superstar. But is he what his followers want him to be?
The idea of the rock ‘n roll messiah is a dated one now, but “Tommy” was one of the first. “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and other iterations of this trope all followed Tommy Walker’s lead. Not just introducing the concept, “The Who’s Tommy” also questions the role of the rock god. In a world where celebrity status is, seemingly, more and more attainable, where it’s easier than ever to interact with our idols, the rise and fall of Tommy Walker is a familiar one, and a sobering reminder to our fame-hungry culture. There is a price to fame, and it’s most often not worth the reward.
Rarely have I been so impressed by a college theatre production as I was with what the Conservatory Theatre Company put together for its first show of the season. Technically, this production is flawless. Amazing costumes by Catherine Crocker-Perry and sumptuous lighting design from Anderw David Ostrowski created a solid foundation for the action to play out on. The orchestration, only eight players strong, created a mighty wall of sound, at times even surpassing the original album in terms of energy and excitement. While I did feel at times that the choreography hewed a little too closely to Jerome Robbins inspired dancing, it did adequately capture the time period of late 40s to early 50s, rather than embracing a more avant-garde style of movement which I personally would have preferred. Overall though, director/choreographer Zeva Barzell did a phenomenal job bringing all of these elements together. Her cast is excellent.
The part of Tommy Walker is played by three actors, Lamont Walker II as the adult, and Primo Jenkins and Gabriel Florentino as different ages of the young Tommy. While the younger boys only sing to their adult counterpart through the mirror, they still played an important part in the show and did well to maintain the stoic, catatonic child for the other actors to react with.
While the ensemble had many moments to shine, the standouts for me were Kyley Klass as Mrs. Walker and Marika Nicole Washington as the Acid Queen. The Acid Queen is a small but memorable part in “Tommy,” and Washington gives an electric performance, unchained, manic, and happily unconventional. Klass as Mrs. Walker is arguably as large a role as Tommy, and Klass gives one-hundred percent as a desperate mother put into more than one impossible situation. When she breaks Tommy’s mirror, it is a heart-stopping moment, and sets up Walker’s emergence to the forefront of the action. For his own part, Walker is every inch a rock star. From our first glimpse of him, with his arms outstretched in the iconic white fringed jacket, back-lit like an angel, to the final rousing musical number, he holds the focal point of the show. He is the lynch pin on which the entire musical turns.
As a huge classic rock fan, I applaud this production for being so much more than a spit-shined, Glee-mimicking nostalgia trip. Their version of “The Who’s Tommy” is visceral, emotional, and full of life. It provides a new dimension to a historic album, and reminds us that once we were all young, all searching, and the music hits us in the same place, that place we all have inside us.
Running time: 1 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
“The Who’s Tommy” runs through October 30, 2016, and is produced by the Conservatory Theatre Company at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. For more information, click here.