The Who’s Tommy has been with us since 1969. First as an album, then a movie (1975) starring Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, and finally the stage musical (1993). Audiences in Austin can now enjoy a local production of the musical, directed by Jeff Hinkle.
I had the opportunity to ask him about the musical, currently being staged at City Theatre. “I wanted a lot of choreography and a lot of dancers, but I did not want the message of the play to get lost in ‘flash'”, he said. “The heart of the story for me is that Pete Townshend wrote it without therapy. He was abused by his own grandmother, and he created a piece of entertainment to heal himself.”
Townshend himself told Rolling Stone in July 1969 what it meant to him. “Tommy’s real self represents the aim — God — and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this. The coming together of these are what make him aware. They make him see and hear and speak so he becomes a saint who everybody flocks to. The boy’s life starts to represent the whole nature of humanity — we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness.”
Presenting a big Broadway-style musical on such a small stage was certainly challenging. “In the Broadway show,” explained Hinkle, “Tommy flies over the stage and the pinball machine blows up.” Things are a bit more sedate here, but the pinball machine (built in Austin by the Zach Scott Theatre) was designed by Hinkle with a trapdoor in the back. This lets Tommy make a dramatic entrance literally through the machine before he turns around to play it. I would have enjoyed seeing some lighting effects on Tommy while he plays; the view is rather static as nothing actually moves. Nonetheless Hinkle succeeded in his goal for the musical: “I wanted a completely original take on it.”
Tommy is played as a youngster by Aidan Lindsey and as an adult by Jacob Bernelle, both making their debut with City Theatre. Tommy is an emotionally fragile character, requiring the actor to possess a febrile imagination to bring that character to life because for much of the musical both the young and adult Tommy are mute. This production of Tommy is graced by the talents of Lindsey and Bernelle, both of whom rise to the demands placed upon them both emotionally and (primarily in the second act) vocally.
Also featured here are powerful vocals from Hilary Werthmann and Buddy Novak. Werthmann takes The Acid Queen song and knocks it out of the park. Novak, cast as a cousin to Tommy, is portrayed by costume (a red & black bomber jacket) and hairstyle as a cross between James Dean and David Bowie. With his beautifully chiselled face Novak exudes that dual persona as if it were entirely natural, and his rendition of Pinball Wizard literally brings the curtain down on the first act.
Combined with an excellent live 5-piece band on stage and costumes that capture a late 60s/early 70s vibe, this is a very fine production and a great way to end the 2017-18 season. City Theatre, which mounts a production every month of the year, begins its 2018-19 season in October with the play Doubt.
Photo credit: Aleks Ortynski.
The Who’s Tommy is playing at City Theatre until Sept. 30, 2018. Visit their website for tickets: