3.5  stars

Victoria Opera’s production of The Who’s Tommy is the Australian premiere of this ground-breaking rock opera. Tommy began as a concept album in 1969 and the music will be well-known to fans of The Who. Indeed some songs will be familiar to most audience members. Tommy has been performed by The Who themselves, adapted into a film version and then finally into a full stage production, opening on Broadway in 1992.

The story revolves around Tommy, a young boy who enters a catatonic state after experiencing a significantly traumatic event. We see Tommy as a bright and happy four year old, who is instantly transformed by this trauma. Life continues and Tommy is now a 10 year old, but still in a catatonic state and regarded as being deaf, blind and mute. Unable to defend or protect himself, Tommy is exposed to further trauma and abuse from his uncle and cousin. Desperate to help their son, Tommy’s parents search for answers. This could be make for a powerful storyline until it takes a bizarre pinball plot twist. At this stage, it’s best just to suspend your disbelief and go along for the wild ride of Tommy’s adult life.

This Australian premiere of The Who’s Tommy is directed by Roger Hodgman who has assembled an exceptional cast to bring this intriguing work to life. Hodgman has found the moments of tenderness and heart to transform the story beyond the bizarre aspects of the storyline and keeping the darker moments present but not overwhelming.

Mat Verevis is outstanding in the role of adult Tommy, also serving as the narrator of his tale. He brings a likeable innocence with a confident rock-star quality that makes sense of his character’s journey.

For this performance the four year old Tommy was played by Hamilton Binnie Garcia and the ten year old Tommy was played by Elijah Slavinkis. The scenes between Verevis, Garcia and Slavinkis were captivating, but particularly the moments between Verevis and Slavinkis. Their hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘See Me, Feel Me’ was a real highlight of the show and their voices linger well after the show has ended.

Matt Hetherington and Amy Lephamer superbly master the vocal score and bring a warmth and endearment to their roles as Tommy’s parents, despite the sins of the past they are hiding.

It provides a balance to the portrayals of Tommy’s Uncle Ernie and cousin Kevin, played by Kanen Breen and Vincent Hooper. Breen manages to bring some laughs to the show, but without being likeable. Appropriately, there is no sense of explanation for Uncle Ernie’s wrongful behaviour and Breen’s portrayal ensures the audience doesn’t develop a sense of empathy or connection to the character.

Paul Capsis makes the most of every single moment he’s on stage as the gypsy Acid Queen in a role that is a vehicle for show-stealing.

Set design by Christina Smith is minimal but effective, aided by an impressive digital video design by Jamie Clennett that enhances the story without distraction. The final images of the three Tommys morphing together is a powerful statement.

Costume design by Isaac Lummis sets the scene and creates emotion. The crisp white clothes worn by Tommy are a stark contrast to the murky characters around him. Choreography by Dana Jolly is sharp and well executed by the ensemble. Lighting design by Matt Scott works well to create mood and effect, while the sound design by Peter Grubb elevates the rock opera to a rock concert vibe.

Perhaps most importantly, Tommy is about the The Who’s music, and this is superbly performed under the musical direction of Jack Earle.

Tommy was a ground-breaking work when first released. Beyond the quirkiness of the storyline, there are layers of depth to unpack and consider for those who dare to explore the concepts of Tommy. For some audience members Tommy simply presents a rare opportunity to experience this unique rock-opera, while for others it will be a celebration of The Who’s music in all its glory.

The Who’s Tommy is now playing at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda.

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Photos: Jeff Busby