I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at writing reviews that aren’t quite so gushing. This will not be one of those reviews. If you’ve come here for a calm, level-headed appraisal of the Stratford Festival’s production of Tommy you’re in the wrong place.
Here’s the gist: of all the hundreds and hundreds of shows I’ve seen, Stratford’s production of Tommy is the best. You’d think I would need at least a brief reflection period before saying that, but I don’t: I say it with no hesitation whatsoever. Prior to yesterday the title of “best show I’ve ever seen” belonged to…Tommy, and specifically the 1996 Canadian touring company that I saw in Calgary. That night, Des McAnuff and Pete Townshend’s adaptation of the Who’s 1969 album (I refuse to call it a “rock opera”) spoke to me in a way that’s seldom happened before or since; to say I left the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium a changed person would actually be understating the case. I never saw McAnuff’s original production of Tommy again; indeed, apart from a cringe-worthy non-Equity version that played Thunder Bay a year later I never saw the show again, period. (I have seen the Who themselves seven times since then.)
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that Des McAnuff himself would revisit Tommy twenty years later – or that he’d do it at Stratford, in the intimate confines of the Avon Theatre, and that the production would, a couple cosmetic alterations excepted, be a virtual remount of his original version. The first hint at what was coming came earlier this week with the first official production still. The next hint came yesterday morning, when McAnuff, Townshend, and members of the cast appeared on Q and talked about a production of Tommy that was faithful to the original. The third came when we entered the Avon Theatre last night and saw John Arnone’s distinctive floor markings poking out from under the curtain. And when the Overture started, and it became clear what was happening, I teared up. (I’m man enough to admit that I also cried during the finale. Not teared up: cried. I was crying.)
I’m not suggesting that a new staging of Tommy couldn’t work. It’s just that the original (which I also saw at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre in 1995) meant so much to me that seeing it again was like living a dream. I’ve talked about ultimate rock n’ roll fantasies. I’ve never talked about ultimate theatre fantasies, but here they are:
- Seeing The Phantom of the Opera again for the first time
- Seeing Des McAnuff’s original production of Tommy again
The first one might be tough, given the constraints of the time-space continuum. The second one happened last night at Stratford. Most of the changes are subtle. Some aspects of the design have been modernized, most noticeably Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections, which utilize an LED backdrop that likely didn’t exist in the mid-90s. The orchestrations have been tweaked (I loved McAnuff’s comment about the guitarists using plastic picks as opposed to nylon ones, since that’s what they would’ve used in the late 60s). I noticed one minor lyrical alteration (near the end of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”). That’s it. Apart from those few, minor things, I saw Des McAnuff’s original production of Tommy again last night. Again, I never dreamed this would happen.
It should be noted, too, that the Stratford cast is stellar. Robert Markus is commanding in the title role, while Kira Guloien and Jeremy Kushnier excel as Tommy’s parents. Paul Nolan is underutilized as Cousin Kevin, but he nails his character’s titular song (“Cousin Kevin” has, for as long as I can remember, been my favourite song from Tommy). Collectively, the cast’s energy overwhelms as it approaches you; “Sensation” and “Pinball Wizard” are the standouts, with Wayne Cilento recreating his original choreography. As for the ending, Townshend himself said in best: “It doesn’t matter if it’s Greek, the audience will stand and applaud.” And it’s true: last night the standing ovation started as “Listening to You” was finishing, and the entire audience was on its feet before the curtain call started. Tell me how many times you’ve seen that.
I know this is gushing. I can assure you I’m not on Stratford’s payroll, although if that’s something they’d consider I could guarantee full houses for Tommy‘s entire run (and that’s before mentioning I’ve got three more performances lined up, presumably with more to come). Again, I didn’t try and make this objective; you might see Tommy, think it’s bombastic, and disregard everything else I ever write. But I loved this show more than I thought I’d be capable of loving a piece of theatre ever again. I refer you once again to my original point: if you came here for a calm, level-headed appraisal of the Stratford Festival’s production of Tommy you would’ve been better served elsewhere. I apologize for that. But I can’t apologize for gushing. As I tweeted after the show: