For some, childhood is filled with wonder and happy memories. For others it’s riddled with real-life nightmares and family secrets. For Tommy Walker, it’s the latter.
The Who’s Tommy tells the story of Tommy, who becomes deaf, blind and mute after witnessing his presumed-dead father murder his mother’s lover. He then suffers more trauma as his family members either attempt to rouse him from his waking slumber or take advantage of it. When Tommy discovers a gift for pinball it brings him fame, even more so after he regains his senses, and it creates an almost messianic following.
The musical is based on The Who’s rock opera Tommy, loosely inspired by lead singer Pete Townsend’s early life and family. The album came out in 1969, with a subsequent film in 1975. The stage production premiered on Broadway in 1993 and won five Tonys for direction, choreography, scenic design, lighting design and original score by Townsend.
The Who’s Tommy is a revelation. It’s playful, serious, avant-garde, weird, surreal, abstract and wonderfully unique. And somehow, several decades after its release, the story still feels fresh and magnetic.
The show explores how our childhood experiences influence the adults we become. Three actors portray Tommy at ages 4, 10 and young adult, frequently interacting onstage with one another.
Adult Tommy serves as narrator of the show, highlighting defining moments in his childhood. Tommy is the sum of the experiences that happened to him, whether that’s discovering his pinball talent or witnessing a traumatic event that shaped the rest of his life.
Tommy’s initial conception came during the heyday of rock operas, shows that are all music with no dialogue like Hair (1968), Rocky Horror Show (1973) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Like those musicals, Tommy’s soundtrack is dynamic, with scorching guitar riffs, imaginative keyboard melodies and heart-pounding drum beats. Hearing it in a theater atmosphere as the production comes alive on a stage is a magical experience.
Besides being instrumentally awesome, the songs and lyrics themselves are exceptional. The soundtrack has some of the most treacherous songs for villainous characters, like “The Acid Queen,” sung by a drug-peddling prostitute hired by Tommy’s father to save the boy and bring back his senses. Notably, “Fiddle” is an unfortunately catchy song that can really only be described as an anthem for child molesters. It’s soon followed by “Cousin Kevin,” which puts to music the taunts of a bully.
“Maybe a cigarette burn on your arm would change your expression to one of alarm,” sings Tommy’s cousin. “I’ll drag you around by a lock of your hair or give you a push at the top of the stairs.”
While it’s distressing to see Tommy victimized by so many monsters, the songs are just despicably good.
Thankfully, the evil songs are matched with more triumphant ones. “I’m a Sensation” gives Tommy a chance to rejoice in his brilliance, and the classic “Pinball Wizard” is a fantastical thrill ride.
The musical is rich on its own, and Denver Center for the Performing Art’s production capitalizes on all that’s there while adding its own flavor in the mix.
The set, props, video screen, choreography and staging all come together to make the show feel like a living art exhibit. There are several moments that, if the show was paused, would look like works of art. Each staging decision feels intentional and meaningful, inviting the audience to think about what it adds to the production. It is a glorious feat pulled off by scenic designer Jason Sherwood.
The show was also delivered by an excellent cast, with Betsy Morgan, Charl Brown, Carson Elrod, Lulu Fall, Radley Wright, Owen Zitek and Andy Mientus. And those rocking performances below stage are also important to mention: Angela Steiner, Dan Graeber, David DeVine, Daniel Schwindt, Jason Tyler Vaughn and Shawn King.
The Who’s Tommy is unlike other rock operas, carving out its own path. It’s a gorgeous show to watch, a pleasure to listen to, and substantive. Hitting the three most important nails of musical theater on the head, Tommy is one of the greats.
On the Bill: The Who’s Tommy. Stage Theatre at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver. Through May 27.