By Elizabeth Rinde
It is surprising how one can be so entertained by observing the abuse of a catatonic child. On Saturday, I went to see Southwest High School’s production of The Who’s Tommy. For those who are not familiar with the popular British band from the 60s and 70s, The Who released their rock opera album in ’69 which was later turned into a movie in ’75. The story starts at the beginning of the Second World War when a young couple conceives a child. The husband is sent off to fight while the wife, Mrs. Walker, is left to take care of her child at home. When the husband is reported to be missing in action, Mrs. Walker finds comfort in a new lover. Returning to the family he lost during the war, the husband finds his wife with the lover and in the heat of the moment, murders the man in front of his young son, Tommy. Escaping into a catatonic state, Tommy is haunted by the event he witnessed and without success tries to reach out to those around him for help through the emotional chaos he feels inside. Symbolically, he searches for himself through his reflection and grows to succeed at controlling the only thing he can; the contained chaos of a pinball machine.
Filled with budding talents, the cast offered strong dance numbers, focused acting, and gorgeous voices. Reflecting the sorrows of his character’s past, Eric Heltemes (Tommy) grimly stared at his younger self and sang passionately about his desperation to be free from silence. With motherly worry under her brow, Meredith Casey (Mrs. Walker) offered a beautiful tone that grabbed my attention. The chorus kept a moving undertone and collectively added to the symbolic chaos of Tommy’s memories. During the “Pinball Wizard” they threw out wide, synchronized movements. Although, the singing was lovely, the actors consonants were not stressed enough to be understood over the talented rock pit. Even so, the majority of the plot was understood through their remarkable acting. Technical elements are the key to a superior production. Maybe it was written in the script to add dramatic effect, but Sam Gaines’ mic (Minister) was echo-y and thus caused his words to be lost in the walls of the auditorium. Another problem with sound, Natalie Young’s mic (Specialist) did not turn on and her diagnosis of Tommy was silenced (no pun intended). That being said, the lighting was artistic and significantly added to the grim atmosphere of the performance. Spotlights from overhead were cast down to dramatically showcase the Tommys while hiding their faces and cool-coloured textured gels accented the nightmarish scenes. However, it would have been nice if a spotlight was used to attract the audience to the main characters when they moved to the right side of the stage.
Emma Alamo’s set was brilliant. She constructed a presence that resembled a pinball machine and even incorporated steps that lit up when walked on. The mirror on stage left added a whole new depth to the performance since Tommy could observe his future and past self through it. The effect however would have been more moving to the left side of the audience if it was angled a bit more towards the center.
Although highly symbolic and difficult to understand at times, Southwest captivated me until the very end. I do still wish that I was able to understand what they were singing most of the time, and that they lit the sides of the stage more. This production could still be smoothed out in a number of areas, but it is worth the time to see it. I would recommend this to anyone who loves rock, a great pit, or enjoys psychology.
Elizabeth Rinde writes on behalf of Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Critical Review student reviewer program, which gives Metro-area high school students the opportunity to attend and review touring Broadway productions, SpotLight Musical Theatre Program events, workshops to develop writing skills, and other opportunities depending on availability. Critical Review teaches communication skills and enhances critical thinking and creative response. As part of Critical Review, students receive study guides and press kits before the show, learn from experts including local theatre critics, playwrights and actors who teach workshops in lighting design to choreography, and in some cases, have expanded access to the Broadway touring cast and crew.