The Who’s “Tommy” Falls Flat

bostommyIf only I were deaf, dumb and blind…that might have made last Friday evening’s sophomoric performance of “Tommy” sufferable.

The Catalyst Acting Company’s rendition of The Who’s venerable rock opera opened at the Englert on the wings of pigeons, soaring straight into the dumpster.  Mercifully its run is only four performances.

I bash because I care.  The origin of this current theater production of “Tommy” dates back to The Who’s double album release of the same name in 1969.  The album spawned a movie in 1975, and 18 years later “Tommy” was adapted into a Broadway play.

The driving force behind all of these incarnations is The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townsend, who conceptualized “Tommy” and wrote most of the material.  Unfortunately something was lost in translation between the original concept and what was unleashed upon the public here Friday.

“Tommy” involves a young boy who witnesses the accidental murder of his mother’s lover, by his father, after he returns home, unexpectedly alive, from World War I.  The trauma of this event, and his parent’s insistence that he saw nothing, renders the child, deaf, dumb and blind.

Throughout his childhood Tommy endures taunting and abuse, both physical and sexual, at the hands of other children and relatives, but remains silent until discovering a pinball machine.  Tommy, as a “Pinball Wizard,” achieves international celebrity.

Once the boy, now a young man, is freed from his affliction, Tommy assumes a messianic character, and followers flock to his religion, highlighted by the rollicking “I’m Free.”  This movement subsequently comes crashing down after the disciples reject Tommy’s demands and a revolt ensues in the closing number “We’re Not Going To Take It.”

The themes of alienation, despair and swipes at organized religion are what made the original “Tommy” resonate, and continue to land the album among the most influential recordings in rock history.  The highlights remain in this current version but are obfuscated by deficient talent.

The lead, played by Sean Nollen, is an admitted amateur, and remains painfully insignificant in this role.  His voice and presence are better suited for dinner theater on a riverboat.  Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, played by Jeffrey Mead, was a bright spot and one of the few voices capable of rising above the cacophony.  There also is a notably campy scene with Tommy’s Uncle Ernie, played by Chris Carpenter.

In the end the show was stolen by a first grader, Colby Kaplan, who plays the 4-year old Tommy, and a sixth grader, Grant Blades, who plays the 10-year old Tommy.  They share the perfect mix of benign Damien-like manifestations and cuteness that enabled them to secure the lion’s share of the audience’s applause.

The band backing this performance was sufficient but the equalization between their volume and the vocal ability of this ensemble was woefully out of balance, leaving many numbers muddled.

The cast and musicians gave an honest and heartfelt performance, but lacked the ability necessary to make a production like “Tommy” successful.  On the plus side The Englert does have a bar in the lobby and I was quite capable of drinking away the pain.

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