Initially, Victorian Opera was supposed to stage their production in 2020, and and then again in 2021 but could not due to Covid restrictions. Finally, in February 2021, Victorian Opera’s production of ‘The Who’s Tommy’, directed by Roger Hodgman, has taken to the stage at Melbourne’s iconic Palais Theatre in the musical’s Australian debut.
Adapted from the 1969 rock opera album ‘Tommy’ by The Who, ‘The Who’s Tommy’ is a rock musical created in 1993, with music and lyrics by The Who member, Pete Townshend.
With a minimalistic setting, a few props, and the musicians elevated towards the back of the stage beneath a giant screen which assisted with the storytelling, the production, although adorned in colourful, striking, and impressive costumes and wigs, focuses more on its music than anything else.
Narrated by a grown Tommy Walker (Mat Verevis), the story follows Tommy through the years of the 1940s to the mid-1960s. Young Tommy is under the care of his mother (Amy Lehpamer) and his awkward uncle, Uncle Ernie (Kanen Breen) after his father is presumed dead. However, years later, his father survives World War II, returns from home the war, and in a jealous fit of rage, kills his wife’s boyfriend.
Witnessing murder traumatises Tommy to the point of becoming ‘deaf, mute, and blind’. But if you thought that this was the end of Tommy’s suffering, you’d be dead wrong. Poor Tommy goes through parental neglect, physical and mental abuse, sexual assault, is exposed to drug addiction, bullying and the worst of all, fame. Life is never easy nor enjoyable for poor Tommy, with the show displaying the toxic sides of adulthood and essentially, humanity.
Not every musical is meant to make you feel good, and although the music by The Who is superb, and the cast are the best that money can buy, the production can only do so much to make a concept album turned musical work.
I felt that sometimes the transitions between scenes with the songs were too quick and it took me a while to realise what was going on. Perhaps, this may have been because I had not grown up listening to The Who. Despite already having an established story carried over from the original content, the musical still could have used more dialogue, although this is through no fault of Victorian Opera. The direction was also a bit strange with the choice of spotlights being on cast members while their lips moved but exerted no projected sound. At first, I thought that their microphones weren’t working, until I understood it was a direction choice and they weren’t really meant to be saying anything.
Thankfully, the performances by all versions of Tommy (shared roles by Olivia Annetta, Hamilton Binnie Garcia, Elijah Slavinskis, and Will Wiseman) are fantastic. Their effortless portrayals of being emotionless may appear easy to do, however, it is quite difficult to remain focused and not break character. Mat Verevis’ vocal chops providing both operatic vibratos and energised rock licks were effortlessly impressive, and every time he was on stage, he commanded it.
Vincent Hooper performance as Cousin Kevin is also notable, and I enjoyed witnessing his character’s believable transition from tormentor to protector and one of Tommy’s biggest fans.
Shout out to Set Designer Christine Smith who created beautiful pinball machine looking props that could easily be displayed as art at the National Gallery of Victoria.
‘The Who’s Tommy’ isn’t meant to be a comfortable experience and is made to make you think, but I’m not exactly sure what exactly I am meant to think about. The resolution at the end didn’t resonate with me, the story is apparently toned down from its previous versions, to the point that it may have lost its punch along the way to becoming the final product that it is playing today.
‘The Who’s Tommy’ is a unique piece of theatre inspired and derived from a 1969 concept album, is something that would be best enjoyed by fans of The Who’s music, those who love 60s rock music, and serious theatre enthusiasts that are keen to see something different. If you’re curious in checking ‘The Who’s Tommy’ out, see it, because it’s a unique rock theatre experience that you may never get the chance to see again.
Victorian Opera’s production of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ is playing now at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre until March 1. For ticketing and more information, visit: https://www.victorianopera.com.au/season/the-whos-tommy
Photography by Jeff Busby.