Like the silver ball in a pinball machine, we are sometimes bounced this way and that, projected headlong into the unknown only to ricochet off a wall. Sometimes we score, we make the digit counters fall. Ultimately, we go down a hole at the end of our play.
Such is the symbolism of Tommy. But there is a lot more to understand than meets the eye – or ear. Steve Wisnoski has been a professional musician since the record was released and plays guitar in The Playhouse production of “The Who’s Tommy,” which opened Aug. 1.
“In high school, I got the double album of ‘Tommy,’ ” he said. “I couldn’t figure out the story, but I learned all the guitar parts.”
The Broadway version conveys the story of Tommy better than the 1969 record or the 1975 movie. The play is about the music as much as the message. Each song can still stand on its own. Andrew Hendley, the music director, said the play is different from the movie and several songs have been added.
“I like the way it has evolved,” he said.
Hendley gathered the best available musicians from around the city to perform in “Tommy.” Wisnoski plays two guitars in this production; acoustic and electric. “Sometimes I have to change instruments in three seconds,” he said. The other band members are equally adept and the singers are fantastic.
The set in the Playhouse appears as a children’s playground with swings, a slide, a merry-go-round. But a closer inspection reveals this is the top of a pinball table. Children play on the set before the show begins, symbolizing the innocence of youth.
“Do you remember those innocent times?” is a question in the program. Director Rick Sanchez believes we are lucky if we think back on our own childhood with fond memories. “If you remember something stronger or deeper,” he writes, “you may have been victimized or cheated out of some of that innocence.”
Tommy is one such victim.
“Tommy,” written primarily by Pete Townshend and members of The Who, contains aspects of practically all themes of stories. A clearer understanding of the story can be brought about by breaking the separate songs down as though it were a novel instead of a rock opera.
The name, “Tommy,” is used in the British army much the same way the U.S. Army uses “Joe” for the typical G.I. Townshend, an Englishman, was very likely thinking of a common name, an epithet, to emphasize the stereotyped anybody who could become a leader.
Captain Walker is captured in battle and made a prisoner in WWII. His pregnant wife believes him dead and accepts the advances of a suitor. The lyric “21 is going to be a good year,” foreshadows the lovers’ hopes that the captain’s son will grow strong and healthy.
Spoiler alert: In the 1975 movie, the lover murders Captain Walker. In this production (as in the original record), Captain Walker kills the suitor. In either case, the transgression is witnessed by young Tommy watching in the mirror. The adults’ admonition, “You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life,” is taken too literally. The traumatized boy becomes deaf, blind, and mute.
So begins the “Amazing Journey” of the boy in the “quiet vibration land – strange as it seems, his musical dreams ain’t quite so bad.” But while Tommy doesn’t visibly suffer, he parents anguish that their son is locked in a world apart.
They lament that “Tommy doesn’t know what day it is” on Christmas. “He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is. How can he be saved from the eternal grave?” Those attuned to foreshadowing are given the hint that someday Tommy will have a religious following.
The stage production has maintained the fun, and the political incorrectness, of the original.
“I always wonder, is someone walking out when Uncle Ernie fiddles about,” Hendley said.
“Do you think it’s alright to leave the boy with Uncle Ernie?” the parents ask each other. They shouldn’t have left him — Uncle Ernie molests the boy.
Tommy doesn’t fare much better when he’s left with Cousin Kevin. He is subjected to pins in his fingers, glass in his dinner, spikes in his seat, and other atrocities.
Though “Tommy” was produced 45 years ago, the issues of child abuse and bullying are still relevant. The actors in the play portray timeless characters. “We have bully problems even today,” Hendley said.
Even though Tommy is oblivious to the outside world of pain and perversion, these deprivations prepare Tommy to adapt to future trials. Indeed, Kevin introduces Tommy to pinball – where he finds his salvation.
As any pinball addict would know, the “Sensation” of running the same ball on the table for an above normal amount of time is ecstasy. Tommy develops a following of aficionados who marvel at the “Pinball Wizard.”
But his parents still strive to find a cure to Tommy’s condition. The Hawker announces that his woman has “the power to heal.” His claim, “She brings eyesight to the blind,” is based on faith – “but how can men who’ve never seen light be enlightened?”
The “Acid Queen” of the 1969 record is a heroin addict on the 2014 stage. Captain Walker brings his son to her to shock Tommy into emotions that could result in his verbal expression. But this is not the time for the “coming of age” story – the dad changes his mind about sacrificing his son’s innocence in this way.
“The Gypsy Queen was going to screw the crazy out of him,” Hendley said. How politically incorrect is that?
Rebecca Trinidad, the Gypsy, said her character is “balls to the wall.”
“Andrew (Hendley) told me to do anything I wanted. ‘You do it and I’ll tell you if it sucks,’ ” she said, adding that the music director let her add the belt (the part when she ties her arm off to shoot heroin). “He told me to ‘Put a little junk in it.’ ”
An unusual problem occurs for Trinidad during rehearsals. She said if she practices too much, she loses the nastiness of the Gypsy. “I can’t warm up,” she said. “I lose the growl.”
Rockers in late 50s leather jackets and Mods in early 60s fashionable clothing dance before the intermission. After the break, the regalia of the Rockers and Mods give way to kids in Psychedelic clothing. This shows the musical influences that The Who brought to the rock opera.
Even as Tommy’s followers gain in numbers, his parents still quest for a cure.
Captain Walker sings, “There’s a doctor I’ve found that could cure the boy,” but the physician determines “All hope lies with him and none with me. The doctor notes Tommy has become fixated by the mirror – a mirror similar to the one in which he witnessed the murder of his mother’s lover. The transgressions of his adulterous mother and his murderous father affect him still.
“Gazing at you” and “Tommy, can you hear me?” is still a great duet but Pete Townshend has added a new song, “I Believe My Own Eyes,” in which the parents resign their helplessness at Tommy’s hopelessness.
Staring at the mirror – a symbol of hope, life, time, and, in Tommy’s case, entrapment – becomes the Pinball Wizard’s pastime. It is through the mirror that Tommy realizes a new self.
Tommy’s mother, frustrated at her inability to produce a response, threatens to “Smash the Mirror” in which Tommy is gazing. Her rage explodes and Tommy is reborn.
The shards of the broken glass cut into Tommy’s dark and silent world. Its shattering mirrors the destruction of Tommy’s introverted self. This can be viewed as another emergence of the individual, another stage or phase in Tommy’s life.
Tommy sings “I’m Free!” though he is still under a delusion. He thought he was popular for his pinball wizardry and his miraculous cure, but his followers, more than ever, see him as a kind of spiritual leader because of his ability to live without seeing, hearing, or communicating for so long.
The irony is that Tommy’s movement had just begun. The pinball is a recurring motif throughout this story. Not only can life be compared to the rolling and bouncing of a pinball within a machine, but the comparison can also be further drawn to show that we, as humans, are manipulated by a higher being. Tommy appears at the top of the slide wearing a silver motorcycle helmet that looks like a pinball. Such a contraption makes him deaf, dumb and blind as he plays pinball. The crowd loves it.
The theme of “free will vs. fate” or “destiny vs. decision” can be found. Tommy becomes the “Pinball Wizard” just as he changes from the manipulated to the manipulator. Uncle Ernie sells souvenirs at “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” The adulation continues.
“Sally Simpson,” a song about “youth vs. age,” is a detour into the life of someone who Tommy has affected. Sally wants to go to the concert but her father said she couldn’t; she sneaks out anyway.
Sally believed that if the new messiah could see her as she wished, then they could get together. But, “She knew from the start, deep down in her heart, that she and Tommy were worlds apart.” This conflict of “dreams vs. reality” is exploited in other songs as well.
The theme of “free will vs. fate” plays out at Tommy’s concert. Tommy invites his audience to his house for what they hope is a tale of enlightenment. More arrive than he expected, and “There’s more at the door.”
“Sally’s Question” (another new song) is “How can we be like you?” Tommy responds, “I’m finally more like you.”
And that’s how it should be. It is better to hear, to see, and to communicate than to be like his former self. His followers revolt because he is not the holy man they wanted him to be. They sing, “We’re not gonna take it.”
As his followers depart, his family fears that he will revert to his sightless and soundless self. Tommy gazes in the mirror and sees his four- and ten-year-old self. He is grown now and can forgive himself and others. Such is the nature of self-actualization. He hugs his cousin, his uncle, his Mom and Dad. Tommy then joins his younger embodiments on the merry-go-round. They face in opposite directions.
At last, Tommy is free. He knows. Introspection can be found looking inward but a world view can only be found by looking outward.
Visit The Playhouse’s website for playtimes and ticket prices.
*Top/featured image: Rockers and Mods give way to Psychedelia. Photo by Siggi Ragner.