'The Who's Tommy' at Paramount is a rocking visual spectacle
"The Who's Tommy" doesn't get staged that often because its technical and talent demands can be so huge. So theater fans should be grateful that the Paramount Theatre in Aurora has tackled the musical -- and done so in a confident production that is both visually stunning and a truly rocking spectacle.
"The Who's Tommy" definitely appeals to the nostalgia (and the wallets) of baby boomers who grew up listening to the iconic 1969 double rock album that produced such hits as "Pinball Wizard" and "I'm Free." But no one should lump the show in with other Broadway "jukebox musicals."
That's because "Tommy" was initially conceived as a rock opera with its own original storyline crafted by the bandmates of The Who. It's not like "Jersey Boys" or "Mamma Mia!" where plots needed to be cooked up to shoehorn in old songs.
Director Des McAnuff worked with The Who's Pete Townshend to transform and adapt this concept album into a five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 1993. And in many ways, this stage version of "The Who's Tommy" serves as a corrective narrative to the incoherent and hallucinogenic excesses of director Ken Russell's laughably dated 1975 film version.
Now, director Jim Corti and choreographer Brock Clawson have collaborated with their superlative Paramount design and music team for a fast-paced and cinematic production that moves seamlessly from scene to scene with an extremely talented and energetic cast.
The story focuses on the troubled life of a British boy named Tommy Walker who is struck "deaf, dumb and blind" after witnessing a traumatic event just after World War II ends. Throughout the course of the show, three different performers portray Tommy -- at 4 (Peyton Owen), 10 (Ricky Falbo) and as a young adult (Devin DeSantis) -- with each also serving as narrators as well as voicing his inner child or future self.
Growing up, Tommy endures brutal bullying at the hands of his cousin Kevin (Liam Quealy) and sexual abuse from his alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Jake Klinkhammer). Tommy's parents (touchingly played by Hillary Marren and David Schlumf) desperately clutch at any rumors of a possible cure -- going so far as to pay a visit to the drug-addled Gypsy known as "The Acid Queen" (played with plenty of commanding menace by Meghan Murphy).
But despite his condition, Tommy garners fame as a "Pinball Wizard." And once a "miracle cure" appears, Tommy then uses his publicity as an unbeatable pinball champion to catapult himself as a sort of messianic rock star with legions of groupies (including a certain Sally Simpson played by Lillie Cummings).
Just exactly how Tommy creatively transitions to become a rock star is a muddy plot point inherent in the original album. Corti's staging also has some storytelling deficiencies -- particularly with the all-important Walker family mirror that crucially figures in Tommy's debilitating condition and his ultimate cure. Corti and production designer Linda Buchanan opted not to incorporate a physical mirror into the sleekly simple set designs of shifting light panels and projection screens, so Mrs. Walker's rage at Tommy's reflection obsession loses its impact leading up to the number "Smash the Mirror."
The redemptive "Finale" also doesn't feel dramatically earned, since the groupies leading up to it go through such rushed transitions of "We love you Tommy," "We hate you Tommy" and "We empathize with you Tommy."
But aside from these lapses, the storytelling and time progressions are otherwise clear thanks to costume designer Theresa Ham's parade of period costumes and the vital (and very impressive) pop-art projection designs of Mike Tutaj.
Old-time rockers may complain that the musical sanitizes the raw rage and rebellion of the original album and the band famous for smashing guitars onstage. But Paramount's dazzling take on "The Who's Tommy" proves that this rock opera, with its vital questions about fandom and the survival of the human spirit amid so much degradation, will likely endure onstage for future generations as a living, breathing emblem of the late 1960s. After all, the surviving members of The Who won't be able to tour forever.
"The Who's Tommy"★ ★ ★
Location: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666, paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 15
Running time: About two hours with intermission
Parking: Metered street parking and nearby pay parking garage
Rating: Mature themes: drug use, violence, sexual abuse and bullying