Tommy: techno-theatre extravaganza

A Stage Door Review, May 3, 1995

It’s been a while since I saw the latest, biggest, most advertised mega-musical to sweep Toronto: Peter Townshend’s Tommy. The danger with writing a review this long after the event is perhaps the best reason to do so. It is far easier to be objective.
-----Tommy is a fraud.
-----A strong statement, perhaps, and maybe even unfair. But Tommy is not a mega-musical theater experience at all. It is, instead, an overblown techno-theatre extravagance. Special effects, electronic wizardry, and sound amplification completely overwhelm the audience, and the actors. All the accolades, if there are any at all, must be directed at the designers who have done their work years ago and probably never set foot on the Elgin stage, and to the invisible kids in black shirts who now hold it together every night.
-----But actors? Who knows? They are so strictly choreographed, so hidden by the smoke and mirrors around them, they could be any professional troupe. The kids who work up a sweat bringing you the same insipid stage shows at Canada’s Wonderland do a better job, a harder job, a more real job, relating and responding to their audiences. The charismatic "star" of this show, Tyley Ross, is proud of his meteoric rise from a street busker to lead in the biggest show to ever touch this planet. But after two hours of Tyley Ross, have we really seen his vaunted talent? Yet yesterday I got a press release from Mirvish productions that informs me, in what must be of vital interest to you so I relate it here (excuse me now while I retrieve it and shake the coffee grounds off), "CTV National new anchor Sandie Rinaldo" was so moved by the experience she "named her new dog Tyley."
-----Did I miss something?
-----Add to this recycled piece of psychedelic noise the arrogance of the author who, when asked to smile for the cover of a Toronto magazine piece about the production, is said to have refused with "I don’t have to sell your f—g magazine." (Yet the magazine still printed with the piece, selling his [fill in the blank] musical.) The experience begins to sour.
-----The story is based on the electronic drug-induced rock opera of the late ’60s, of a young English boy shocked into autism as he witnesses the murder of his father by his mother’s lover, and then finds in adolescence a skill in pinball games and is elevated to godhead status by adoring fans. Along the way he is drugged, abused, shocked, and haunted by memories.
-----A sordid movie version by Ken Russell in 1975 buried Roger Daltry, Elton John, Ann-Margaret, Tina Turner and a host of others in leading roles, proving true talent will survive even this.
-----The flower children of the ’60s are now nostalgic and moneyed producers of the ’90s. The result is director Des McAnuff’s transformation of this tale into a stage version. While Townshend continues to strut (smilelessly) before the cameras, it is really McAnuff who has done the deed. McAnuff has responded to modern sensibilities. That is, he has re-written the story to sell better today. The boy’s father is not murdered: now it is the father who protects his family by mortally wounding an intruding figure. The sexual and drug abuse has been softened. And the final scene is now a saccharine reunion of family and friends back at home.
-----In support of Tommy, and what the Mirvish team is doing for theatre, however, I must in fairness relate the message of Janice Price of the Stratford Festival, as she commended them for revitalizing theatre, introducing live theatre it to younger audiences in a way that Stratford never could (or should).
-----I’m not sure I agree with Price. Theatre, as I see it anyway, is a celebration of language, of words and ideals, often carried in song and heightened with special effects, but not dominated by either.
-----Do not expect this celebration in Tommy.
-----For tickets ($25 to $91) call 416-872-5555.

(Tommy Closes November 19, 1995).

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