Finally on stage some 18 months after its initially intended season, the tremendously talented cast of The Who’s Tommy have lost none of their infectious enthusiasm for the work.
As a genuine sung-through rock opera, The Who’s Tommy proves a solid choice for Victorian Opera, and is even better suited to the venue, Melbourne’s glorious Palais Theatre.
Having won five Tony Awards from eleven nominations in 1993, it has to be said that The Who’s Tommy has aged rather poorly, holding up as a musical theatre curiosity rather than as a satisfying attraction in its own right.
Adapting The Who’s 1969 album Tommy for the stage, Des McAnuff and composer Pete Townshend tell their story in bold strokes, but provide little, if any, character development for the excellent cast to portray.
Director Rodger Hodgman appears to hedge his bets in terms of balancing the safety of musical theatre colour and movement with anything that might approach a darker, more threatening edge.
The music sounds superb, and it may be ungracious to say that it almost sounds too good. As prepared by musical director Jack Earle and associate musical director Phoebe Briggs, the beautifully blended ensemble harmonies are outstanding. Diction and clarity are at a premium, even if this comes at cost to genuine rock excitement.
Earle’s rocking band of seven fellow musicians play the score with skill and precision; it just seems a shame that Peter Grubb’s sound design generally does not come close to bone-shaking volumes regularly heard at this rock palace.
Dana Jolly delivers impeccably tight choreography. Christina Smith conjures myriad locations form simple pieces of furniture, the stage picture and storytelling greatly enhanced by the vivid overhead video designs of Jamie Clennett. Matt Scott provides genuine, grand scale rock concert lighting to terrific effect.
Choice costume designer Isaac Lummis contributes an extraordinary array of glamorous costumes, with the sizeable ensemble seemingly never set setting foot on stage without an entire new set of outfits. Lummis once again exhibits the fruits of his meticulous research and preparation in the characterful, period perfect costumes that are a key aspect of the theatrical storytelling on show. Kate McLeod nattily complements Lummis’ flair with almost as many wigs, each one as lovingly styled as it is distinctly characterful.
As Young Tommy, Hamilton Binnie Garcia shows incredible focus and calmness. As Tommy matures to late childhood, Elijah Slavinskis shows further fortitude, maintaining Tommy’s implacable facade while coping with the terrible treatment Tommy is subjected to by his family and local friends.
Blessed with the one true arc of the evening, Mat Verevis moves from bemused Narrator to catatonic youth, before really coming into this own as Tommy blossoms into an ethereal messiah. In an impressive star turn, Verevis supports rather than over shines his co-stars, all the while displaying well controlled vocal power.
Musical theatre favourite Amy Lehpamer is as delightful as ever, her magnetic stage presence shining through despite the underwritten nature of the role of Mrs Walker. Lehpamer sings up a mighty storm in act two as Mrs Walker implores her son Tommy to “Smash the Mirror.”
Lehpamer is well matched with Matt Hetherington, who brings noble dignity and smooth vocals to the relatively one-note role of Captain Walker.
Lively presence Vincent Hooper delivers stirring vocals at every chance as unpleasant youth Cousin Kevin. Kanen Breen maintains a disarmingly mischievous sparkle as the madcap, yet malevolent, Uncle Ernie.
A memorable sight in flowing black and purple, Paul Capsis proves the old maxim that there are no small roles, bringing to mind the impact of “King Herod’s Song” in Jesus Christ Superstar with his cameo turn as The Gypsy who presents herself as “The Acid Queen.”
The ensemble is studded with great value team players who add precious facets of sparkle to the stage. Chameleons Mark Doggett, Mark Hill, Nicole Melloy and John O’Hara throw themselves into myriad featured roles with unerring flair. Special mention also to emerging performer Darcey Eagle, who elevates the cameo role of starstruck teen Sally Simpson with neatly understated flair.
Fans of The Who will be be drawn to the rare chance to experience The Who’s Tommy live on stage, while musical theatre fans are sure to appreciate the wonderful cast.
Man in Chair attended opening night of The Who’s Tommy as a guest of Palais Theatre.
Photos: Jeff Busby