I get the music
Musical performances carry Blue Room’s Tommy
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of The Who’s Tommy. Conceived and composed by Who guitarist/ vocalist Pete Townsend, the pioneering rock-meets-classical music concept album is widely regarded as one of the most influential in the history of rock music. And many of the tightly crafted tunes—"Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It"—have taken their place in the canon of rock’s classic songs.
Of course, Tommy has a history that includes more than just the music. There’s also the story of the character Tommy, the traumatized deaf, dumb and blind kid who becomes a pinball-playing messiah before falling back to earth, that threads through the recording (and is retold in varying permutations in the subsequent film and stage musical versions).
Despite the fact that it has to depend on the strained material at hand, the Blue Room’s production of Tommy suffers very little from the loose storyline. Simply put, this production rawks! This isn’t the typical stage musical with actors acting their ways through vocal performances; this is a rock show. The band and the various vocalists are the whole thing, and if you ever liked this music, or you’re just a fan of bombastic well-orchestrated rock featuring performers who know how to play to the audience, this is one amped-up, deftly played, kick-ass rock experience.
It starts with the spot-on band, featuring three of the four members of Chico rockers Bear Hunter—vocalist/guitarist Maurice Spencer, bassist Kirt Lind and drummer Clint Bear—and director Jeremy Votava’s decision to present them out front and turned up rather than behind the scenes. With a much leaner setup than The Who’s typical stacks-o-amps approach, Spencer (who also plays Mr. Walker) and crew make no less of a huge sound—a well-rehearsed polish broken up nicely by gritty, emotional playing.
Spencer turned in fantastic odes to Townsend’s gritty tenor, but the real show-stoppers were voiced by the actors, such as Gina Henson Tropea, in devilish red, who turned in a soulful performance (not unlike Tina Turner’s famous version) of “The Acid Queen.” The most transcendent performances, however, belonged to Blue Room musical veteran Matt Hammons as Tommy, reaching deep for emotional renditions of “See Me, Feel Me” and “I’m Free,” and Cameron Ford (of local band The Secret Stolen) playing Cousin Kevin/Local Lad and throwing himself into ferocious versions of crowd-pleasing rockers “Cousin Kevin” and “Pinball Wizard.”
Of course, for anyone familiar with the previous Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs at the Blue Room a few seasons ago, this rousing rock-show approach comes as no surprise. Many of the players here—Hammons, Henson Tropea, Spencer, Bear and Votava—are veterans of that production.
If you don’t already know the story, it might be helpful to brush up ahead of time (the play’s program also offers help). No matter how well the sound is mixed, no theater is ever going to be able to get across enough vocalized words to get the story across. The energetic ensemble does committed work acting out the story, but there’s only so much that can be conveyed through miming. And though well-placed projected imagery does some of the storytelling work here, the images were sometimes muddled by the non-reflective black diamonds in the patterned image from the Tommy album cover painted across the wall at the back of the stage.
The story might be superfluous, but the well-executed time-tested tunes—as they always have—make up for it.