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The Who’s Tommy at Stratford

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Seated in the third row of the Avon Theatre at Stratford, engrossed in our conversation, Jean and I were nearly jolted from our seats by the extremely loud opening chords of “The Overture”.

Judging by the nervous giggling all around us, we weren’t the only startled patrons. Welcome to The Who’s Tommy, live on stage at Stratford, Ontario.

The Who books in literary display, Stratford

Spot The Who amongst the literature at a Stratford bookstore

I enjoyed it very much, of course. Having seen it back in the 1990s in Toronto, I suspected I would. This version has more complex staging, more special effects. I couldn’t tell you what the differences are; I don’t remember well enough. But I can tell you this is one of the most elaborately staged musicals I’ve ever seen. There were always things to look at, all around the stage. (And from the third row, that sometimes made for a sore neck.)

So the one critique this production has received is that the effects and all are too much; that they overwhelm the excellent cast. Jean and I would disagree with that. Tommy is big rock musical with big themes. It and its cast are only enhanced by staging that matches those ambitions. And I, for one, did not find that it diminished the play’s emotional impact. I remain touched by Tommy’s situation.

As I know both the album and the movie inside and out, I found it interesting to see how the story was adapted for the stage.  I had recalled, from the Toronto production, that the story is somewhat softened from the movie version, both necessary (to not restrict the play to those 18 and over) and a relief, given that the Uncle Ernie, Cousin Kevin, and Acid Queen happen to the 10-year-old Tommy in the play, unlike the Daltrey-aged Tommy in the movie. (And no, little Tommy is not left alone with a hooker; his father merely toys with the idea before coming to his senses.)

But I had forgotten tons of things, like the interplay of Tommy at ages 4, 10, and 20something, which both dramatizes the character’s extreme self-imposed isolation, and allows us to enjoy the performance of lead actor Robert Marcus in the first half, before Tommy grows up; the very different handling of the Sally Simpson story (at least compared with the movie); and the much bigger role of Cousin Kevin—which is great, as he’s played by the wonderful Paul Nolan (Jesus in last year’s Jesus Christ Superstar).

Most especially, I’d forgotten that lyrical changes that turned “We’re Not Gonna Take It” into Tommy’s refusal to lead his followers into his world of isolation, whereas both album and movie had Tommy trying to do just that, and them rebelling. (Of course, the followers reject him here as well—only for a completely opposite reason.)

There are many other lyrical changes (for example, “21” refers to the mother’s age rather than the year), but only one new song appears in this production: “I Believe My Own Eyes”, which provides the segue into “Smash the Mirror” (without any need of the movie’s baked beans and melted chocolate). It’s very much a Broadway song, more so than a Who tune, but having bought the soundtrack, I do find myself humming it at times, which is interesting.

As I’ve already suggested, I thought the cast was very good, and on a shallow note, I found young Mr. Marcus very attractive, looking rather better on that stage than he did in his publicity photos. Jean was similarly struck by the lovely Kira Guloien as Mrs. Walker.

Gotta say that one thing really lost in the stage version is the power and potency of the “Listening to You” final chorus that you get from hearing The Who play that live.  But a play is a different animal than a rock concert. And this one is also worth experiencing, in my opinion.

Select quotes

“At least now I know why Tommy was deaf, dumb, and blind. I never understood that before.” — Jean

“I was hoping that I would know at least one song. Just one. But I didn’t recognize any of them.” — My Mom

“Oh my God. The music is by Pete Townshend? Of The Who? Oh my God. This is terrible!” — Lady sitting behind me

Après theatre dining

If you do go to Stratford, for Tommy or other, I might suggest dinner or lunch at La Taverna, which is a new section of Pazzo restaurant, as we very much enjoyed our meal there. It’s pretty small, but a pleasant room, with a comfortable feel. Sound level would have been fine, except we had a big Italian family dining next to us! 🙂 And the service was very good.

Oysters at La Taverna

Appetizer

We started by sharing oysters, and a bocconcini bruschetta with figs and prosciutto (not pictured, but very nice).

Gnocchi and fish

Main course

Jean had a very nice gnocchi dish as his main, while I went with the fish special of the day.

Rice pudding and baked vesuvius

Dessert

And we concluded with an arborio rice pudding for Jean and a “baked vesuvius” for me, that being a limoncello-soaked cake with lemon gelato and cardomom meringue. Delish.

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