The passion of The Who

Pete Townshend never thought he was creating anything important with Tommy. Some of the origins of his famous rock opera were even rather scrappy — the anthemic “Pinball Wizard,” for example, was stuck in at the last minute to schmooze a rock critic who was nuts about pinball.

Similarly, when local thespians Jennifer Szczesny and Franklin Harris decided months ago to stage the Broadway version of the Christian allegory, they couldn’t have foreseen — in light of Mel Gibson’s current hit movie The Passion of the Christ — how timely their production would quickly become.

When Townshend and The Who first presented Tommy to the world in 1969, it spawned innumerable concert performances, a star-studded blockbuster movie that would garner two Oscar nominations, and an award-winning Broadway show.

Meanwhile, the release earlier this year of Gibson’s Christ saw it instantly selling out in theaters coast-to-coast, with its projected gross tallied at more than $350 million.

Going full tilt

The local production came into being when Szczesny told Harris: “We need to collaborate — and we need to collaborate on Tommy.”

Szczesny heads the Blue Ridge Community College Drama Department, while Harris is artistic director of the Christian theater group Jericho Productions.

Even though Szczesny and the production’s musical director, Aaron Price, are considerably younger than baby boomer Harris, they both were well aware of The Who original: The rock opera was in their parents’ album collection, a fairly typical scenario for many of the pair’s generation.

Harris himself knew the album and its various offshoots — though not intimately, he admits.

“To tell you the truth, at the time Tommy first appeared, there was so much other stuff going on that was just as creative that I didn’t pay special attention to this,” Harris explains.

So Szczesny loaned him a tape of a program that chronicled the “amazing journey” of the work from album to film to Broadway show.

“Now, that inherently is not something that would make somebody cry or give them goose bumps, but I’m telling you, I was just blown away,” Harris reports.

From there it was a matter of securing the financing from Blue Ridge Community College, and working out the intricacies of the project.

“The young man playing Tommy was in the production of Jesus Christ Superstar that Jericho did about two years ago, and I knew his potential,” explains Harris.

But the artistic director is quick to note that the stage version may not be what most audience members expect.

“People who are really addicted to the original Who album are going to be a little put off by this production,” he cautions, “only because the songs are not in the same sequential order that they are on the album.”

Then again, they weren’t in the “right” order in the Ken Russell film, either. The song lineup has changed every time — because Tommy is a living organism that keeps evolving with each new version.

It has a life of its own, as Townshend himself would be the first to admit.

“Like a lava lamp in fast forward”

The Tommy of the story’s title is Tommy Walker, who is traumatized at an early age, and as a defensive reaction, he becomes deaf, dumb and blind. His condition allows him to be easily abused by a variety of characters — each representing some facet of modern life — until he discovers an outlet in pinball.

Tommy’s mastery of the game earns him a following, which in turn leads to his being elevated to messiah status when his psychologically imposed condition is lifted. The question then arises whether Tommy can actually convey the inner truths he has learned to his followers.

But when Harris was recently asked what Tommy is “about,” he says he corrected his questioner. “Let me tell you what it’s like,” he retorted.

It is, Harris then suggested, “like a lava lamp in fast forward — it’s always changing shape, but it never stops.”

He adds now: “The surrealism of Ken Russell’s movie is not present [in the staged version], but it’s still an allegory; it’s still bigger than life. It’s a tighter narrative than the film, which is a much tighter narrative than the album.”

And so, of course, the next question becomes: What does the staged incarnation sound like? Personally speaking, I was a little alarmed when I first encountered the original show version, feeling it had been a little too “Broadwayed.”

“I had problems with that at first, too,” remarks Charles Pittman, who plays Tommy in Jericho’s production. “But it’s just a different style. It’s the same story and has the same feeling — just a little softer around the edges.

“Some of the lyrics [in the local production] have been changed,” he reveals.

To which musical director Price — who says he also balked at “all the bells and whistles that Des McAnuff put in the [Broadway] score” — is led to interject: “A lot of the lyrics have been changed!”

Thus Price warns that if you only attend the local Tommy because you like the Who album, “You’ll be thwarted over and over again as you try to sing along.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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