ORLANDO — Mad Cow Theatre’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” has a boisterous opening that sets the scene for a world seemingly gone mad. It’s London during the second World War, and bombs reign down on Londoners, Hitler invades other nations and then we focus on one British soldier, Captain Walker, who not only has to leave behind his beautiful, and pregnant wife, but also is taken prisoner by the Nazis.
Any child born into this madness and devastation, it would seem, is likely to find it exceedingly difficult to survive emotionally. Mrs. Walker, told by British officials that her husband is lost, tries her best to love and shelter her son, the boy she names Tommy. She even finds a new man to provide the boy with the father figure now that Captain Walker is presumed dead.
Set to Pete Townsend’s invigorating song “Overture” from his 1969 rock-opera album, “Tommy,” the opening moments that mix song, dance, acting and video clips projected above the screen are brilliantly assembled. It has the speed of the kind of video games that seem to fascinate and entrance anyone under the age of, say, eight, which made me wonder why nearly the entire audience at Mad Cow Theatre on this particular evening was well over 50 years old – the kind of folks who could remember buying “Tommy” on vinyl when it first hit record stores, in the days when terms like CD and digital download were decades away from becoming commonplace.
But those opening moments are just a tease for some of the spellbinding moments to come. Captain Walker, having escaped from the Nazis, returns home to his wife and child – but is outraged to find the male lover now living at his home. A fight ensures, and Captain Walker shoots and kills the man – right in front of young Tommy. Both parents hurl themselves on the traumatized boy and scream harshly that he can never, ever tell anyone what he’s just witnessed. It works – only too well. The trauma of seeing the murder overwhelms Tommy, who suddenly becomes deaf, dumb and blind. He exists inside an inner world known only to him. He’s guided in this imaginary world by his own double, who promises to take him on an “Amazing Journey … to learn all you should know.”
Mad Cow’s production, which stars the immensely talented Wesley Slade as Tommy, does indeed take us on quite a spectacular journey. Being deaf and blind doesn’t shield Tommy from an especially grim and nasty world; he gets molested by his Uncle Ernie (in a scene performed largely behind closed doors, and using stills of child’s drawings – a scene likely to make your skin crawl) and abused by his Cousin Kevin and other young thugs who enjoy inflicting pain on someone weaker than them. Tommy finds refuge in a strange place: he becomes a master pinball player, earning the respect of those who felt he was little more than a freak. But his parents are determined to find a way to heal the boy, unsuccessfully – until Tommy’s mother notices his fascination with staring at his own image in a mirror …..
Along the way, the brilliant staging of some of the scenes – the parents lamenting the fact that their son will not have his soul saved because he can’t discover religion (“Christmas”) or the bumbling doctors who can’t figure out what’s wrong with him (“Go To The Mirror”) — remind the audience of why the original “Tommy” LP has reminded a classic. The Who performed it in its entirety at Woodstock in August 1969, and it would find new life as an opera in Seattle in 1971, a movie in 1975 and, of course, a Broadway hit by 1993.
But if there’s one thing that’s truly perplexing about this show, it’s the ending – which goes in a different direction than the original album.
When Peter Townsend wrote the songs in the late 1960s, he had Tommy become a mystic savior to young people after he regains his sight, a kind of rock star guru. He invites them to live at his camp, where he urges them to cover their eyes and ears and become deaf and blind to achieve a heightened sense of enlightenment, but his followers reject him.
In the Broadway version that Townsend developed with Des McAnuff, the final song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” has been completely rewritten. Tommy’s obsessive followers are eager to cling to his every word, but instead he encourages them not to follow him, but rather to discover themselves, to find their own identities. They reject him, and he retreats into the arms of his family.
A happy ending? Tommy is so warm and sincere as he urges his followers to chart their own path in life that you can easily see him getting a job writing slogans for greeting cards. The ending feels completely out of place as the conclusion to the dark, cynical and often harrowing world that the rest of the play creates, with scenes of Nazi soldiers capturing Captain Walker, the violent killing of his wife’s lover, the physical abuse Tommy endures, his molestation (young Tommy is played by two child actors, Parker Sims-Chin and Jordan Dickens, who are so good that they make those scenes even more difficult to watch; during intermission, a woman leaving the theater said to a friend, “The parents would have to be pretty liberal to let their child act in a production like this.”) That’s why it’s hard to understand why Townsend would opt for such a stale and conventional feel-good ending. It’s almost as if the Townsend in 1969 who rejected society’s authority figures and led young people to worship a social reject, a freak, an outsider as their hapless leader would, by 1993, want us all to feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves.
The puzzling ending aside, there are a host of good reasons to see the production, from the performances (in addition to Slade, Heather Kopp is especially good as Mrs. Walker), the creative stage direction by Donald Rupe, and of course the songs themselves, which (unlike some 1960s music) have aged quite well and often lend themselves brilliantly to a large-scale musical.
If the story itself at times seems muddled and pretentious (something none of us cared about when we were listening to those great songs on our old record players), our three Tommys do an especially good job of reaching out and touching us emotionally, and they do indeed take us on a very amazing journey.
“The Who’s Tommy” is being performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 2. Mad Cow Theatre is at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando. Tickets are $17-$37.75.
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