Date: 8 March 1996
Originally published in: Volkskrant (Netherlands)
Musical ouvertures are often used to bring a close to talking in the foyer. The beginning of ‘Tommy’ leaves no room for ‘social talk’ in the dark. With a hellish guitar/drum thump the mouths are effectively closed.
In the next ten minutes, in which the orchestra plays the most important musical themes of the evening, the story of Captain Walker and his mistress in 1940 is told. With words, video and slides the Battle of Britain, the captivity of Captain Walker in a German camp, the birth of his son Tommy, the liberation by the Americans after almost five years, and his return to London are shown.
Mrs. Walker didn’t count on the last thing happening anymore. she has a different lover. The fight that follows gets out of hand. While the four year old Tommy looks on via a mirror, Walker shoots down the unwanted replacement. Tommy is told by his parents that he’s never seen or heard anything and that he should keep his mouth closed. He takes this very literally. As of that moment Tommy is a ‘deaf, dumb and blind boy’.
The high tempo of the ouverture is kept up during the whole play. It’s a videoclip with Disney elements. A marathon is being run within two hours. And it’s hard work, both for the players and the audience. But the investment is paid back in full. Tommy is a classic piece of work. Joop van den Ende has made another goldmine.
Two years ago he acquired the world rights for the rock musical, with the exception of Germnay. The show had already proven its worth in America, with five Tony Awards and a Grammy for the cd recording. After the enthusiastic reviews and reactions from the audiences in England, Robin de Levita, executive producer for Van den Ende, says the road to worldwide exploitation has opened.
London has closed the pinball machine, the medium of Tommy, in its arms. When during the performance the Pinball Wizard has ended up at the climax of his performance, with technical gizmos the entire Shaftesbury Theatre is changes into a ringing and flickering pinball.
The original version of Tommy by The Who from 1969 seemed tailormade for a theatre company. But it turned out to be a trap. The story by Pete Townshend had holes and was too fragmented to be made into a theatre show. The success was also very tied to the guitar play of Townshend and the vocal and personal power of Roger Daltrey. With the exception of richly arranged pieces like Pinball Wizard and the emotional theme Listening To You the songs were too rudimentary for theatre, which can’t rely on a young audience only.
The music has, after treatment by the master himself, become richer. But not too smooth. With the exception of the later added ‘I believe my own eyes’, in which Townshend shows that he knows the repertoire of Lloyd Webber.
The theatrical carcass has gotten more flesh. The figures who came by fleetingly in the performance by The Who, such as the perverse Uncle Ernie and the sadistic cousin Kevin, are now present from the beginning and become real characters. This has been achieved without adding text, but by efficient theatrical movements.
The ending has been changed of course. The new Tommy returns to the warm lap of the family. Townshend has become a little older too.
The starring role is being played by the unknown 19 year old Paul Keating, who had to give up his job at the supermarket. He is assisted by two younger Tommy’s, who as perfect deaf dumb and blind kids let themselves be fooled with.
Keating’s living has been made. He carries the show but never plays anyone else away. He sings very well and does a very good introvert Tommy as well as the extraverted one.
The other roles have been filled without problems too. It’s a pity that the Acid Queen, who tries to get Tommy back to the living with drugs and sex, stays pretty close to Tina Turner’s creation in the crazy movie version from 1975.
Only Kim Wilde, announced as the star audience puller, is left slightly behind with the high level of the cast. As a pop singer (‘Kids in America’) she could rely on the disguising work of studio technicians. Now she is caught redhanded when she sings high and low notes.
The musical Tommy has to be able to pull the audiences that never even heard of The Who. And whoever has nostalgia for the nihilistic vandalising sessions by Townshend and friends, will enjoy the way Tommy breaks through the psychological barrier. The mirror is spectacularly smashed.