Review: The Who’s Tommy (UC Follies)

The Who's Tommy

UC Follies and Tommy discover “miracle cure” for winter blahs!

If David Letterman were to see The UC Follies’ version of The Who’s Tommy, he’d leave Hart House Theatre and shout up and down the streets of Toronto. “That’s it! That’s the way to blow the roof off the dump!”

The historic theatre is most certainly not a dump. I’m also pretty sure the roof was intact at the end of the night.  A statement with that kind of bravado is fitting though. It is a rock and roll thing to say. It simply and effectively describes this version of Tommy, the rock opera.

Pete Townshend created Tommy when he was a young man. Tommy is full of emotion and is intellectually stimulating.  The Who released this masterpiece in 1969, at their peak. It has since sold 20 million copies worldwide.

The Who is my favourite rock band. I find Pete Townshend the most provocative person in music.  Although I’ve been attending Who concerts for 30 years, I’ve never seen the stage version. My wife saw Tommy at The Elgin Theatre in 1995, and it remains one of her favourite plays. For those reasons, we’ve been anticipating this play for months.

Some people were discussing the Chris Farley movie Tommy Boy beforehand. It turns out that not everyone is familiar with the story.

Tommy’s story is complicated but universal. It is probably easy to get “lost” without knowing the basics beforehand. I recommend a minute or two of preparation before you go. It won’t hurt, trust me!

Tommy is traumatized at a young age and retreats into himself. He becomes a deaf, dumb and blind “island”. He is tortured by family members and friends during his formative years. His parents try various cures but nothing really works.

As familiar as I was with Tommy, seeing it performed onstage was an epiphany. I saw and understood the work on a new and exciting level.

I really liked that the stage was minimal. Tommy remains a rock and roll piece. The focus is on talent, energy and story. Dozens of milk cartons, yes milk cartons, are used to great effect. It takes imagination and conviction to make it work. And does it ever work!

A nine-piece band fills the back of the stage. Having them onstage is fantastic, but they could have been louder. We agreed that lots of things could have been louder. The volume of solo-singers never really seemed loud enough. Even with the stacks of speakers on either side of the stage, there were times when a singer just couldn’t be heard.

Another issue with sound was the lack of effects. There was no sound for a mirror breaking, but the light show for the same was superb.

Other things about the sound were great. Townshend toiled with the idea of quadraphonic and surround sound decades ago. He never figured it out, but UC Follies did.  The cast physically surrounds the audience at times. The “immersion” of the audience was thrilling and provided some highlights.

The last three songs,  “We’re Not Gonna Take It”,”See Me, Feel Me” and “Listening to You” are incredibly powerful.  The gifted cast becomes a choir, turning the theatre into a church.  Many eyes were moistened as a result. Old man Pete must be smiling in his mansion in England.

“Christmas” was another song done incredibly well. It was playful and creative. The horn work is something everyone should see.

Tommy’s longevity is due to many things. We can all relate to some, hopefully not all, of the trauma that Tommy suffered as a child on a personal level. Tommy also reminds us of current headlines. You might be reminded of the recent Penn State scandal or The Occupy movement. You might even think Townshend delivered an eloquent anti-bullying message. In the end, the importance of individuality and the human spirit are what matters onstage and off.

Oh yeah, the music is also some of the best ever composed!

You don’t have to be a fan of The Who, Townshend or even Tommy to enjoy this play. I don’t think most people were beforehand. We all shared the same big smile on the way out though. That’s what happens when you “blow the roof off the dump”!


The Who’s Tommy  is playing at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until February 11, 2011
– Shows run Thursday to Saturday, February 2-4 at 8pm, and Wednesday February 8-11 at 8pm. There is an additional matinee on Saturday Feb 11at 2pm
– Ticket prices range from $15 – $25
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at  (416)978-8849 [97UTTIX] or at the door