‘The Who’s Tommy’ showing in Denver through May 27
Special to the Daily
If you go ...
What: “The Who’s Tommy” — a rock opera.
Where: The Denver Center, less than two hours from Vail.
When: Through May 27.
Tickets: Visit www.denvercenter.org.
It’s sometimes fascinating to see how certain fictional characters can evolve and gain new life and relevance over the years. In the case of Tommy, the “deaf, dumb and blind boy” at the center of The Who’s 1969 rock opera “Tommy,” the themes of guilt, exclusion, fame and fanaticism are as fresh today as ever, and the Denver Center’s towering reboot of the 1992 musical based on the album is simply fantastic.
Whenever asked which my favorite band of all time is, I usually say it’s The Who. Even if I don’t listen to them a lot these days, the band’s music was hugely influential to me as a young man, and I think most of it has weathered well over the years. Pete Townshend wrote “Tommy” when he was in his mid 20s, and I always thought of it more as a stepping stone to his greater rock opera, “Quadrophenia.” Something about the story of Tommy, however, has resonated more with audiences, so while “Quadrophenia” is often overlooked, “Tommy” keeps marching on.
Three different Tommys
I’d never before seen “The Who’s Tommy,” so it was with some trepidation that I entered the Denver Center’s Stage Theater on a Friday night in April. Would it be true to the album, or to the whacky 1973 Ken Russell film? Would the pit band be able to faithfully render the songs of The Who? Would it be loud enough? (That’s important with Who music).
The answer to the first is a bit of both. Townshend was heavily involved with the production of the 1992 musical, which required some work to make sense out of the vague plotlines of the album. It’d be hard to impossible to reproduce on stage some of the visually outrageous bits in the film (who can forget Ann Margret being accosted by a few tons of baked beans?), but the stage production keeps many of the fantasy elements while adding some interesting extras.
One of those is the use of three different-aged Tommys appearing on stage at the same time in many scenes. A 4-year-old Tommy (Radley Wright) grows into age-10 Tommy (Owen Zitek). Meanwhile, adult Tommy — Andy Mientus — is there at the beginning, serving as narrator before morphing into the primary role and hitting note after note with his powerful voice.
Young Mr. Wright kicks off the show while the overture accompanies the cast acting out the events leading up to the main action: Captain Walker (Charl Brown) goes off to war, leaving his pregnant wife (Betsy Moran) behind. When she learns of his presumed death, she takes up with another lover (Gareth Keegan) and they plan for their future with young Tommy. Captain Walker, turns out, wasn’t dead, and when he returns home to find his wife with another man, a fight ensues and Captain Walker kills the lover. Tommy sees it all, through a mirror, and while still traumatized by the murder, his parents exhort him over and over to forget what he saw. That, in turn, causes a psychological block that strikes him deaf, dumb and blind.
Turning it up to ‘11’
“Tommy” is about a lot of things, but the core of it has to do with truth: what’s real, how we interpret our own truths, and salvation from some of the uglier impulses of humanity that cause us to subvert the truth. Compared to the album and the film, this version of “Tommy” — though still plenty dark and disturbing in places — delivers the audience to a place of promise, where family matters more than fame and past wrongs can be forgiven — or at least forgotten.
While the Denver Center Theater Company has always delivered high production values with its shows, the team seems bound to match the touring Broadway shows across the plaza at Denver Center Attractions. Every show I’ve seen this season has featured production values that range from eye opening to astonishing, and “The Who’s Tommy” is the best yet. Director Sam Buntrock had the production team throw everything they had at this, with a dazzling array of lighting effects, moving stage pieces, trap doors and mind-bending projections.
Meanwhile, the pit band does The Who justice, turning it up to “11” and reproducing the unique sound of “Tommy” with striking clarity. This production is an intermission-less 90 minutes of solid music, with nary a spoken word nor break for applause. It’s an all-out assault on the senses, made all the more poignant as the actors portraying Tommy occupy the center, oblivious to it all.
For a Who fan who loves theater, this one was tough to beat. But the entire audience was wowed by this production, delivering an enthusiastic standing ovation for the cast and then stumbling out of the theater a little speechless and a tiny bit deaf ourselves.
That’s The Who for you.