As trippy musical psycho-dramas go, “The Who’s Tommy,” now playing in MusicalFare Theatre, has to be the trippiest.
The 1993 show, adapted from the groundbreaking 1969 rock opera “Tommy” by the Who’s Pete Townshend and jukebox musical pro Des McAnuff, is a literal interpretation of a vague blueprint – an infliction of theatrical realism upon a perfectly good piece of mid-20th century musical impressionism.
In MusicalFare’s production, first-time director Chris Cavanah – who also served as the show’s lighting designer, sound designer and opening-night bartender – goes at the problematic piece with a single-minded determination that pays off largely due to the talents of his cast.
The sketchy story revolves around young Tommy (played by Joel and Samuel Fesmie), who witnesses a brutal murder as a boy and whose equally unsound family members complicate his pre-existing emotional problems by means including torture, attempted sexual assault and prostitution. At one point, he becomes an excellent pinball player and eventually breaks free from the mental prison he’s been living in to become a national cult figure on the order of David Koresh. None of it makes any sense, though the story does vaguely illustrate the perpetual cycle of violence and trauma humanity seems to be trapped in.
For me and other fans of Townshend’s singular musical gifts, the work comes most vividly to life as a headphone listening experience devoid of the literal interpretations that tend to point up its absurdity and de-emphasize its power as a kind of hummable nightmare.
Listening to the record on vinyl or through your iPod, you can fill in the innumerable holes in Tommy’s story and build the underlying story up into something better with your own imagination. But in Townshend and McAnuff’s extraordinarily literal adaptation and its synth-heavy reorchestration of the powerful record, the abstract beauty of the piece disintegrates and its weaknesses become all the more glaring.
During the opening-night performance of “Tommy” on Feb. 19 the band’s overall sound struck my ears as harsh and tinny, lacking the essential bass-driven bedrock of the Who’s music. The cast’s voices often seemed to overwhelm the music and sometimes vice versa, hiding many of the show’s crucial harmonies. The tempo was erratic through much of the first act, though the band had found its footing by the second.
On a second viewing a week later, the wrinkles in the sound mix (a perpetual challenge in MusicalFare’s small space) seemed to have been largely smoothed out, with the exception of the hollow and distant-sounding electric guitar. The cast had clearly eased into their roles, and the production ran along with much more confidence.
My reason for nitpicking over the finer points of the show’s sound mix and musical direction is because its score – even in its watered-down, Broadway-ready state – is really its only redeeming feature.
If you can overlook the show’s faults, you’ll find a great deal to like in excellent performances from Michele Marie Roberts, Louis Colaiacovo, Steve Copps and Jake Albarella, who wrap their musical theater-trained voices around the hard edges of Townshend’s score.
As the adult version of Tommy, Joe Donahue III, of Buffalo rock band the Albrights, turns in a capable if often tentative interpretation of the central character. His smooth voice, not unlike Roger Daltrey’s, ramps its way up to and around the high notes with noticeable effort and his movements onstage occasionally betray a lack of confidence. He will no doubt grow more comfortable in his character’s skin as the run continues.
The Albrights’ Brandon Barry injects something that sounds like actual rock with his excellent guitar-strumming and singing, while the gifted Loraine O’Donnell goes a few decibels overboard on what might otherwise have been a home-run rendition of “The Acid Queen.”
For any production of “Tommy” to rise above its weak source material would be a monumental task. This one doesn’t quite make it, but the efforts of its cast may still make it worth the trip.