I don’t think I took a breath for a full five minutes as I watched the first scene of The Gallery Player’s production of The Who’s Tommy (original book, music and lyrics by Pete Townshend). I’m not kidding, I literally sat there, stunned … amazed really, at what I was seeing, hearing … feeling. Between the orchestra booming out the amazing score, the lighting (designed by Chris Walsh) which convincingly transformed Michael Kramer’s set into a hatch through which men parachuted down to uncertainty, and the wonderful projection screens that held images of war, destruction, and carnage … well it was all I could do to blink. No doubt about it, Tommy starts with the velocity of a pinball released from the chute … and is the definition of breathtaking.
Thankfully, after an opening that large, the musical soon gently lands you back down in your seat where you’re able to breathe again, and take in the surroundings. For those who don’t know the story, it’s easy enough for me to quote one of Tommy’s most famous songs … That deaf, dumb, blind kid sure plays a mean pinball. But of course … there’s more.
I came to The Who by way of pop-culture – I didn’t grow up with older siblings and I wasn’t much of a classic rock fan in my youth – quite frankly I knew that Who Are You was the theme song for CSI and that it was the group’s signature song, but I had no idea that the other 2 CSI franchises’ theme songs Won’t Get Fooled Again (Miami) and Baba O’Reilly (New York) were also The Who. Just so you know where I’m starting from here.
So I wasn’t exactly going into Tommy ready to hum every song. That’s probably a good thing, because it meant I was able to experience each song fresh, and in the context of this production (directed by Tom Wojtunik) rather than do that “aha!” thing that, let’s be honest, everyone did the minute the first few notes of Pinball Wizard sounded.
The story of Tommy is a lot more layered, complicated, and complex than Pinball Wizard led me to believe. When we first see Tommy he’s a tiny boy of four, and Anthony Pierini couldn’t be more adorable … or more convincing. I was astonished at how he was able to hold his own on this stage full of seasoned adults, and just stare, catatonically, as people moved and crashed about him and constantly pulled, pushed, and carried him off to another dizzying adventure. Tommy, doesn’t start out dissociated. He starts out as a darling little boy who unfortunately sees some awful things and is desperately told by his mother “Mrs. Walker” (Anna Lise Jensen) and his father, Captain Walker (Tommy Foster) You didn’t hear it / You didn’t see it / You won’t say nothing to no-one / ever in your life / You never heard it / Oh, how absurd it/ All seems without any proof / … Never tell a soul / What you know is the Truth. And with that … POOF … little Tommy is gone. Just a shell, and a sad little shell at that.
The spirit of Adult Tommy (Brett Travis) [acting as 'Narrator' till Act II] pops in and out, weaving through the people like a ghost and plaintively begging his parents to “See Me, Feel Me”. His baffled parents don’t actually know what to do, they lead Tommy from one doctor to another for years, (so many years that he’s now played by an older Daniel Henri Luttway) and they begin to carelessly forget that he’s actually a person locked up in there as they leave him alone with wicked Uncle Ernie (Nathan Brisby) and cruel Cousin Kevin (David Perlman). Again, to watch young Daniel Henri Luttway be tossed about is even more unnerving, especially during song like “Fiddle About” and “Gypsy Queen”. Both scenes involve far too much sexuality than one little boy should be able to handle; it’s not quite clear what either Uncle Ernie or the Gypsy Queen (Marcie Henderson who doesn’t hold back and comes across as a cross between salvation and sin) do to this boy, but whatever it is, it’s just not right. And it certainly isn’t doing anything to break him of his dream-like state.
It’s only when Tommy gets put in front of a pinball machine that he … well, we’ve all heard the song. He’s got crazy flipper fingers … he plays by sense of smell, or so it seems. This phenomenal skill leads him to become a cult figure, followed around by street thug and teeny bopper alike. But of course it doesn’t phase him a bit, he’s as removed and catatonic as ever. When Anna Lise Jensen sings “Smash The Mirror” it’s absolutely heartbreaking, you can feel the anguish of a mother who’s tried to love a son who, for years, never gave so much as a nod in her direction. Of course, when she smashes the mirror she breaks the spell … Tommy is free. But is he really? Somehow, seeing all he has to live up to now, how much he has to give back to this seething crowd that always wants more, MORE, MORE! puts him in more of a box than his frozen mind ever did.
Ultimately, Tommy is a tale about redemption, about finding yourself, about making that connection and yes … it’s about Pinball.
Catch this show while it’s still here: Tommy runs until May 24th at The Gallery Players (199 14th Street Brooklyn, NY – New York 11215 btwn. 4th & 5th Avenues)
For more ticket information click here.