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A bold new Tommy

Mar 01, 2015
Eric Mingus in Tommy. Photo: Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

Eric Mingus in Tommy. Photo: Tony Lewis / Adelaide Festival

Tommy, a 1969 double album by The Who, has been re-issued multiple times and adapted for live performances, stage plays and a 1975 film starring Roger Daltrey.

This latest production is the result of a collaboration between producer Hal Willner and vocalist, bassist and composer Eric Mingus, coming together for an exclusive Adelaide Festival season in the 50th anniversary year of The Who.

Mingus, long fascinated by Tommy, draws his inspiration from the melodies and stories emerging from the original recording as well as the accompanying cover art. His aim was to follow these influences in new directions and, with the blessing of The Who guitarist and original creator Pete Townshend, he began exploring.

Mingus has spoken about being absorbed when first encountering the original album, and of trying to access that experience again while opening up to different interpretations without trivialising the material. The result is a jazz reimagining of this iconic work.

Staging at Her Majesty’s Theatre was simple, with musicians grouped to the left and right of a central space in front of a large, cloister-like wall. Two giant images of the young Tommy’s face, moving projections, hovered one above the other in the middle of this structure. It was a static set-up, and due to the number of musicians, left little room for the other performers to move around in. Featured characters entered and exited as they presented each song, at times interacting with the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” Tommy, who stood silently in the centre of the stage for much of the first half of the show.

The music is uniformly excellent and there were several stand-out performances from the vocalists. Yael Stone was superb in the title role of Tommy, and Camille O’Sullivan, as Tommy’s mother, was elegant and engaging. Elana Stone (sister of Yael) shone on accordion and in a range of small singing parts. Eric Mingus, in the roles of narrator, hawker and doctor, was a dynamic, wildly expressive presence, stalking the stage with a force which at times was distracting.

Robert Forster’s soft delivery was in contrast to the powerful voices of the other performers and he seemed overshadowed throughout. Gavin Friday’s camp Acid Queen lacked bite in a performance, not helped by hand gestures that took the microphone too far away from his face. He was much more convincing as Uncle Ernie and this sequence, simultaneously humorous and disturbing, was the point at which the show took off.

Much has been made of the ground-breaking move of casting a woman as Tommy. For most of the show, Stone looked so much like a boy it didn’t matter and by the time she let down her hair it seemed of little consequence. In the end, this was the least controversial aspect of this production. It’s a complex beast of a show. The lack of a strong narrative thread made following the story tricky, although for those familiar with the original this wouldn’t be a problem. There’s lots of wandering around, and at times it was difficult listening.

Is this a satisfying new interpretation? It’s occasionally abrasive and off-putting but there are many strong individual performances and Yael Stone is electric as Tommy awakens and enters the real world. Towards the end, the work burst forth with an energy it lacked in the first half.

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Devotee of the original album or film? Not a jazz fan? This might not be the show for you. For those ready to embrace a bold new Tommy, however, these are classic songs radically reinterpreted.

The season of Tommy at Her Majesty’s Theatre concluded on March 1.

Click here for more 2015 Adelaide Festival stories and reviews.

 

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