Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"The Who's Tommy" at the Kennedy Center

I saw the final performance of "The Who's Tommy" as part of the Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage program, minimally staged short run productions. 
Content warnings for the show include onstage gunshots, murder, references to child sexual situations, bullying, and a sex worker named G*psy.*
I had seen the movie at some point in my childhood so went in with a vague recollection that that Tommy didn't speak but played pinball. 
The Broadway version dates from the 1990's, but the concept album, and the movie predate that. It is of a piece with something like "Jesus Christ Superstar" in that the songs move forward, expecting the audience to fill in gaps. 
The Broadway Show begins just before World War II when Tommy's parents meet and fall in love. Informed her husband had died in the war, Tommy's mom starts a new relationship. When Tommy's dad discovers this on his arrival home he fights with and then kills Tommy's almost stepdad. Deciding to tell the police it was the almost stepdad with the gun, the parents realize Tommy witnessed everything and tell him to say nothing, that he heard and saw nothing. As a result Tommy stops speaking or responding. Tests are able to determine no cause, and Tommy's essentially non-responsive state leaves him open to much abuse. And then they discover he does respond to pinball. 
The cast of this show was wonderful. This show asks an incredible amount of its ensemble and they were up to it. The choreography was fabulous and energetic. Tommy is played by three actors, and in the first act the younger two's inner dreams and monologue are expressed by the adult Tommy, and then they appear as echoes once adult Tommy is in place. 
The show moves quickly and as such the ideas of justice, or why Tommy chooses and then rejects a public life get short shrift. But Tommy does seem happier at the end and the music is rocking. 
It is always interesting to revisit things one saw as a child, although certainly this is a different form in many ways. As an adult I found this much harder to watch, and yet it's still a good time. 
I always read all the cast bios, and so it was fun to see two locals in the cast, including one who had been in Signature's "Billy Elliot".

*It is my understanding that this character was originally called the Acid Queen. Wow, that change is an interesting choice.