You could exhaust yourself trying to apply logic to the plot of “Tommy,” but at the outset, it doesn’t hurt to try. After WWII a British officer named Walker, believed to be MIA, returns home to find his wife with her new lover, he promptly shoots him dead. The young son Walker had never met, Tommy, witnesses the crime and takes his parents’ pleas to keep mum to a shocked extreme: from then on, he neither sees, hears nor speaks. Perfect protagonist for a musical, no?
This lockbox of a child, the titular character in the Rep’s deliriously raucous production of the Who’s seminal rock opera, holds the center of the show while song and dance and lights firework around him. With so much to see and hear, it’s no wonder that when Tommy’s gift of pinball wizardry emerges — celebrated at the close of the first act with one of the catchiest songs known to humanity — the lyrics explain that “he ain’t got no distractions; can’t hear those buzzers and bells.” He’s the only one; this show’s like being the silver ball in a giant amusement machine, and feeling all the bumpers along the way.
Credit director Lynne Kurdziel-Formato for pushing her cast and ensemble to fill the relatively spare set with an energy that borders on the hyperkinetic, deploying enough gyrating and cavorting and pinball-machine stomping to feed the eyes in every scene. The musicians ably playing the score — a rock orchestra? a symphonic band? — occasionally overwhelm the lyrics, to no severe detriment to the storytelling. The singing here is strong (at times outpacing the dancing). In particular Mr. and Mrs. Walker, played by Brad Little and Amy Halldin, belt out some of the more memorable vocals of the show. And Christina Sajous, in her oh-damn turn as the Gypsy, the role inhabited by Tina Turner in the 1975 film adaptation, turns it up to 11; it’s doubtful anyone will sniff, “Well, she’s no Tina Turner.”
Brian Hissong, the cologne-model-handsome eldest version of Tommy, displays the pipes and the charisma to carry the role, and by the time Tommy transcends his sensory shutdown to become a near-messiah, it’s easy to see why women want him and men want to buy his merchandise. How does this lad Tommy rise to such heights? The Who the hell knows? His ascent to pop icon-within-a-pop icon serves to remind the audience of everything he missed: a Christmas choir, gyrating pinball hall greasers, foxy nurses. Tommy tells his acolytes that it ought to be he who envies them — and it’s easy to see why when his father alone would throttle him, leave a pervy uncle and an abusive cousin to babysit him, and, when doctors fail to cure the boy, haggle with a pimp for hallucinogenic drugs and sex on Tommy’s behalf. How Tommy emerges from his catatonia in such high spirits is the true marvel. Like this cast and crew, maybe he was just feelin’ it the whole time.
Tommy is playing at the Rep through June 28.