There Has to Be a Twist: Stray Dog Theatre's production of The Who's Tommy never tilts at all

Oct 13, 2011 at 4:00 am
There Has to Be a Twist: Stray Dog Theatre's production of The Who's Tommy never tilts at all

If you go to see Stray Dog Theatre's production of The Who's Tommy — and let's get it right up front that you should do whatever is necessary to see it — be prepared for a radically reimagined version of Pete Townshend's classic rock opera. The program lists Justin Been and Gary F. Bell as co-directors, but Bell makes it clear in his notes that this staging is predominantly Been's. That's a very generous concession on Bell's part, because with a show as exquisitely conceived and executed as this, you'd think a director would fight to take a share of the glory. That spirit of generosity suffuses the entire production; Been's visionary interpretation of Tommy is so life-affirming and exuberant that you'll want to share it with other people.

The basics of Townshend's album are intact — young Tommy Walker sees his father, who'd been presumed to be dead, return from World War II and kill another man, and then Tommy is told so forcefully by his parents that he didn't see or hear anything that he retreats into his own mind for the next fifteen years, becomes the world's only blind, deaf-mute pinball champion and re-emerges from his mental sanctuary as a messiah figure to the youth of England, only to reject their worship. Townshend and Des McAnuff alter the story in key places (most notably, Tommy doesn't die at the hands of his spurned followers), to the betterment of the tale.

Been and costume designer Alexandra Scibetta Quigley set this fable in a steampunk Victoriana version of England — think Blade Runner meets Bleak House — adding to the proceedings a lustrous, otherworldly sheen. Tommy is portrayed by three actors: Audrey Manalang is the boy at four years old, Braden Phillips is ten-year-old Tommy and Antonio Rodriguez is the adult version, and each brings something vital to the character. When Phillips' Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie (Josh Douglas, monstrously effective in the role) during "Fiddle About," Rodriguez's older Tommy watches, then tenderly dresses his younger self while singing "See Me, Feel Me" — this is a haunting, soul-squelching rendition of the song, driving home the terror of the incident. Rodriguez possesses a heroic, clear voice — there are times when you wish for some of Roger Daltrey's throaty rasp, especially if you're familiar with the album — but Rodriguez is magnetic in the role. He transforms "Sensation," one of the album's weaker songs, into a joyous romp, stopping and starting time for the ensemble while he dances around the periphery, arranging them into a tight cluster so they can join in on the chorus, which lifts the song to a triumphant finish. Choreographer JT Ricroft has that ensemble doing yeoman's work all night, whirling through kaleidoscopic formations and creating on-the-spot tableaux that help carry the narrative burden.

Of course, the bulk of Tommy's journey from darkness back to the light is illuminated by Townshend's blazing songs. Musical director Chris Petersen assembled a crack band for this one; guitarist Adam Rugo replicates the frantic, hangnail buzz of Townshend's phrasing during the intro to "Pinball Wizard," and while Keith Moon is inimitable, drummer Sean Lanier does his lithe barrage justice. All of these elements coalesce in "We're Not Gonna Take It," as Tommy (Rodriguez) sings "Right behind you, I see the millions/On you, I see the glory," drawing first his estranged family to his side, then his dejected followers; the band is steaming, growing ever louder, and when you think the show has peaked, all of the actors drop character and sing to the crowd, welcoming us into the fold. It's uplifting and liberating, a singular moment that caps a magnificent evening and sends you back to the real world energized and alive.