Despite its huge successes – on film, on stage and in recordings – Tommy has always had troubles: weak characters, a muddled storyline. The music in the Who’s 1969 tale of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a cult messiah retains its explosive power. And it appeals to a younger, wider audience that theaters would love to attract. But the trouble when theater people tackle Tommy is that they — theatricalize it. They don’t have much choice.
Kevin Moriarty is the new artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center. He is young, energetic – even hyperkinetic. And he loves musicals. So for his stage debut at the Theater Center, he picked Tommy. Moriarty has said he wants to “jolt” the Theater Center, but he chose a 40-year-old show that was done on Broadway 15 years ago and 11 years ago at Casa Manana.
What’s to “jolt”?
- For ticket and show information, click here.
- This Friday, be sure to watch Krys Boyd’s interview with artistic director Kevin Moriarty on KERA Television.
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Moriarty does put his own highly theatrical stamp on the show. He gives it a contemporary, American setting – with, in the background, the war on terror. He stages it on a dark, raw steel set, straight out of old MTV rock videos, complete with a sizable, curving staircase (that doesn’t get used very much). He has a jumping, Pentecostal choir and even dancing elves and Santas.
To give Moriarty ample credit, his staging is definitely not a simple re-mounting of the 1993 Broadway version by composer Pete Townshend and director Des McAnuff. That production relied a lot on video dazzle, courtesy of set designer John Arnone. And it sanitized the Who’s original version. Although Moriarty uses additions like the (weak) new song Townshend wrote for the Broadway show (“I Believe My Own Eyes”), this is Moriarty’s own, new interpretation – in some ways, faster and more streamlined.
Wisely, he has brought in the Denton pop-rock band, Oso Closo. They keep the Who’s music alive and kinetic — and not pit-orchestra formulaic. (In fact, the guitar arpeggios and crashing percussion in Oso Closo’s original material, such as The Friendship Song, sound rather Who-ish). And Moriarty has assembled a cast that features some great singing voices — from New York imports like Nehal Joshi as Tommy’s father and Betsy Wolfe as his mother to Dallasite Cedric Neal, who is a thrilling presence as the adult Tommy.
Moriarty has also dispensed with the improbable Broadway wrap-up that had Tommy returning to his family – the one that traumatized him and abused him and, incidentally, killed his mother’s lover. (“Freedom,” he sings, “lies here in normality.” Tommy forgave them, apparently, in “I’m Free” and “Welcome,” but still … normality?)
Instead, Moriarty devises his own conclusion in the song, “We’re Not Going to Take It.” The people who repudiate Tommy’s prophetic mission are now some previously unseen, unspecified outside force, although plainly typed as government agents. This comes on top of the significant African-American presence in the production – not just in Liz Mikel’s imposing Acid Queen, who has long been given a Tina Turner-ish interpretation. Tommy himself is black, the Hawker who brings Tommy to the Acid Queen is now a black preacher (played by the electrifying, long-limbed Jordan Hall).
This is more than just color-blind casting (witness, for instance, the gospel fervor the preacher and his choir bring to “Eyesight to the Blind”). With a war on terror as background, what we have is a handsome, young, charismatic, African-American leader who is brought down by nefarious forces. One can hardly fault audience members if they see the realization of some people’s fears for Barack Obama in all this. Tommy’s preaching even ends in a sudden outburst of staged violence, a somewhat gimmicky coup de theatre. The invasion of outside bad guys also upends Townshend’s own ending, which had Tommy’s followers turning against him – much as in Jesus’ betrayal.
Even with all of these casting strengths and interpretive additions, Moriarty does not solve the basic dramatic weaknesses of Tommy. Despite its rock opera label, the show began as a concept album. And in the Who’s own thunderous live performances, it evolved into something more like an oratorio. An oratorio is sort of a concert version of an opera. It has simpler characters, not much staging or storyline. It’s like a parable or a pageant with great music. The oratorio that everyone knows is Handel’s Messiah, which points up another aspect: Oratorios are usually about spiritual topics, instead of all that operatic love and murder.
This certainly sounds like Tommy, which reflects Townshend’s own conversion at the time to the spiritual teachings of the Indian mystic Meher Baba. And its characters – other than Tommy – are indeed pretty simple. As a result, the first half of the show whips by with crisp energy but very little emotional engagement. After the initial murder that traumatizes Tommy into silence, the show’s real drama is all inside Tommy’s soul. Just try staging that.
So – out come the dancing elves and the splashing water.
To take one of the show’s failings, admittedly a minor but telling one: Moriarty makes Uncle Ernie, who sexually abuses Tommy, into even more of a joke than he has been in past incarnations. For a daring showman, Moriarty soft-pedals the pedophilia. As Ernie, Gregory Lush has a terrific voice and plays the silliness with admirable conviction. But Ernie’s song is childlike because he is addressing a child – which should make Ernie even creepier. Moriarty could have had Lush stand next to Heath Williams II (playing the young Tommy), do absolutely nothing, sing “Fiddle all about, fiddle about” – and be more disturbing than he is now, molesting a rubber ducky from 20 feet away.
But — still —
With the song, “Pinball Wizard,” director Moriarty uncorks the one thing that theater can add to rock ‘n roll to amplify it, to expand its electrifying reach: a tremendous, tear-down-the-walls dance number that exults in the Who’s overpowering sense of release. Choreographer Joel Ferrell more than earns his paycheck with “Pinball Wizard” and with the equally rousing finale, “Listening to You.” Those two numbers are more vital than any dance sequence I’ve seen on a local stage.
As a result, audiences for the Theater Center’s Tommy are likely to come out puzzled — but also jazzed by the singing, by the Who’s music (thanks to Oso Closo) and by the way theater and rock can fuse into an ecstatic moment.
Well, at least, a moment or two.
Photos by Brandon Thibodeaux
- One daring part of the show not examined in the review: how the water gets used around the musical equipment.