REVIEW: Equal Parts Rock Concert and Theatre, Oakland University’s ‘Tommy’ Takes the Audience on an Emotional and Rewarding Aural Adventure

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Who’s original concept album Tommy – an album that became the catalyst for the 1993 Tony Award®-winning rock opera of the same name. Next month it’s playing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. with a bunch of big-name stars. But why wait when you can see it now thanks to the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance? And I highly recommend you take advantage of this opportunity – especially since opening weekend was sold out.

With music and lyrics by The Who guitarist Pete Townsend, book by Townsend and Des McAnuff (who also served as the production’s original director), The Who’s Tommy album is considered by many an elevated art form. Admittedly, my knowledge of The Who’s music mostly comes courtesy of the “CSI” television franchise (sacrilege, I know). But that is what makes this show so great: whether you have their entire song catalogue memorized or you can’t hum a bar, you’ll still have a great time.

The story starts off in 1940 London where Captain and Mrs. Walker (played by Joshua Frink and Mackenzie Grosse) meet, fall in love, marry, and are torn apart by war. In 1941 Tommy comes along, but Mrs. Walker believing her husband has been killed in action tries moving on with her Lover (Jacob Pacek). But life throws a wrench into those plans when Captain Walker returns home to his family and meets four-year-old Tommy (Dante Petrie) for the first time. Naturally, this is not a happy reunion for everyone and the traumatic events that follow leave a lasting impression on young Tommy. Of course, those around Tommy don’t stop to think his sudden retreat into himself has anything to do with what he’s experienced. Instead they are quick to label him ‘deaf, dumb, and blind,’ while pouring all of their energies into trying to fix him. Isn’t it interesting when faced with something we don’t understand our knee-jerk reaction is to focus on fixing the perceived problem instead of trying to suss out what might have caused it in the first place. According to Dramaturg Ian Krueger’s program notes, the reaction of Tommy’s family would have been typical of what was happening at the time in British medical history: “For reference, autism, a mental disorder affecting young children which closely resembles Tommy’s condition was not diagnostic criteria until 1943.”

The evolution of Tommy (L to R): Dante Petrie (4-year-old Tommy), William Dunn (teenage Tommy), and Finn Francis (10-year-old Tommy).
Photo courtesy of JLBoone Photography

As Tommy continues to grow, so does the frustration of those around him. And during all this, Tommy, now 10 (played by Finn Francis) finds himself taken advantage of by those closest to him. Namely his disturbed Uncle Ernie (Antonio Vettraino) and bully of a cousin Kevin (Clayton Sallee). It is interesting to note that while Townsend’s name is most associated with the music of Tommy, The Who’s bassist John Entwistle is credited with penning two of the show’s darker tunes: “Fiddle About” and “Cousin Kevin.” Both songs deal with the tough subject of abuse, which hit a little too close to home for Townsend. As Tommy continues to find his place in a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with him, he discovers a pinball machine. He also discovers he’s exceptional at playing pinball (“Pinball Wizard). With this new revelation comes hope that Tommy will be cured (“Tommy, Can You Hear Me?”). As Tommy (now played by William Dunn) continues to grow, so does the level of his pinball fame. Frustrated, his mom takes matters into her own hand and smashes the mirror Tommy constantly looks into in an attempt to get his attention; and it works (“I’m Free”). Tommy is finally able to break from the psychological prison he’s been in for years. However, even after Tommy is ‘cured,’ people still try to take advantage of him, but in a different way (“Uncle Ernie’s Holiday Camp”). And all those who clamored for his attention, now reject him (“We’re Not Gonna Take It”). As Director David Gram says in his program notes, “this is a story about healing, redemption, hope and forgiveness.” As the characters navigate their physical and emotional wounds, they fight for peace of mind and body. Petrie and Francis (the two youngest Tommy’s) are to be applauded for handling such a mature role. There is a lot of sensory overload happening all around them and yet they are able to maintain the catatonic composure of the character. Bravo! This production is both engaging and ambitious. Props and people enter and exit at a dizzying pace; and scene changes happen with calculated precision. Not only is action happening on the stage, but on three screens as well. It is for this reason I suggest sitting in the seats towards the center for full sensory effect.

See if you’re a Pinball Wizard before the show on one of the machines in the lobby courtesy of Sparks Pinball Museum – Arcade & Bar

For most of OU theatre productions, there are at least one or two that feature Synergy on Stage, “a collaborative of American Sign Language (ASL) Performers committed to honing their craft as artists as well as interpreters.” Because Tommy is often referred to as ‘deaf, dumb, and blind’ ASL is being presented at all performances. This was my first chance to see Synergy on Stage in action and I was blown away. If you think interpreters are static and stoic, then think again. Courtney Butcher and James Cech were integral parts of the play – complete with costume changes and the occasional need to scarper up the scaffolding. Whether you’re hearing, or Deaf, you are guaranteed to be impressed. They didn’t interrupt the performance, but rather enhance it; making it all the more enjoyable. And more so than in most productions, a huge shout out needs to be given to the band: Alissa Hetzner (Conductor/Keyboards), Dave Mety (Drums), Ron Pietrantoni (Keyboard), Michelle Ripple (Horn), Andrew Toering and Neal Wright (Guitars). The collaboration involved in a production of this magnitude requires everyone to pull their weight, which they all do in spades. In a society that is constantly trying to label people, Tommy provides a refreshing reminder that we are more than how people see us. And his story gives us the inspiration to triumph over our adversities – whatever they may be.

There were a few miscues/missteps during the Thursday performance, but that often comes with opening night jitters. I saw a lot of familiar faces in the cast, so I am confident the show will only get better. In fact, the second half of the show seemed much more settled and assured.

The play runs one hour and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Doors open a half hour before the show, but make sure you get there early to play on one of the pinball machines in the lobby. Because of the mature subject matter, this show is recommended for ages 14+.

Tickets are $12 for students and $22 for the general public. Purchase tickets at StarTickets.com. All performances of Tommy are shadow-signed for the Deaf by Synergy on Stage and are held in the Varner Studio Theatre on the campus of Oakland University.

Grab your tickets and get ready to rock out at one of these remaining performances:

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at 8 p.m.
Thursday, March 28, 2019 at 8 p.m.
Friday, March 29, 2019 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 30, 2019 at 2 p.m.
Saturday, March 30, 2019 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 31, 2019 at 2 p.m.

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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