“The Who’s Tommy” is more than just a rock opera — it is an emotional journey.
The Who released “Tommy” the album in 1969. Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter for The Who, and Des McAnuff, a well-known musical theater director, wrote the performance adaptation.
The story follows Tommy, a traumatized boy who is deaf, blind and dumb, and takes place between 1940 and 1966.
The audience meets Tommy at his birth and journeys with him as his parents desperately search for a cure for his disabilities.
When he is finally able to see, hear and speak again, he surfaces as a talented rock singer who’s working through his past trauma and abuse, including the cures that his family thought would help him.
“The Who’s Tommy,” put on by American University’s Department of Performing Arts, used many sophisticated techniques reminiscent of professional shows.
The cast and crew used techniques that combined representative methods and traditional acting, allowing for suspension of disbelief without losing the person-to-person connection present in a live performance.
They combine the use of puppets with live performers and include shadow representations in which the performers interact with the shadow scenes.
The performances by the actors and actresses were equally impressive.
The music in “The Who’s Tommy” is a tremendous challenge in itself. These performers tackled the music with success and simultaneously delivered emotional performances needed in such a story.
Brandon Deane, the actor portraying Tommy inthe first act as both 4- and 10-year-old Tommy, used three different puppets to represent him as a child.
The use of the puppets were integral to the provocative moments in the show, and they successfully avoided any silliness often associated with puppets.
Although this was done well, there was a loss in emotional connection with the transition from Tommy at 10 years old to Tommy in his 20s.
The face of Brandon Deane, who played Tommy in the first half, was visible and he became a part of the character, just as the puppet was.
In the second act there is a new actor, Eddie Leavy, playing Tommy in his 20s and there are moments where the 10-year-old Tommy is on stage with him.
The two actors are very dissimilar physically, so the emotional connection is severed.
The audience builds a connection with an adult face for Tommy, and that image is completely changed in the second act.
Although the emotional connection suffers, the singing and acting by Leavy in the second act is not any less impressive.
In addition to provocative performances, the staging served as another tool of intrigue.
It included a walkway jutting into the center of the audience, creating an intimate performance space.
At points this intimacy is vital to the audiences understanding of the action. It is a place where provocation takes place and discomfort is the goal.
The performance touches on subjects that make the audience uncomfortable, but in a way that makes “The Who’s Tommy” more than just a rock opera. Rape, transvestites, drug use, abuse and emotional trauma were ruthlessly put on display in the middle of the crowd.
The audience is forced to grapple with them in a way contradictory to the “if we don’t talk about it, it does not exist” mentality.
American University’s undertaking of “The Who’s Tommy” was extremely ambitious, and they were successful in delivering a provocative, emotional, satisfying and talent-filled performance.