The 1969 rock opera Tommy by the Who isn’t quite a great piece of music, but it’s very, very good. I’ve loved the album ever since it came out, so I was thrilled to hear that Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble would be choreographing her own full-length ballet to the Who’s hard-driving rock ‘n roll.
Pete Townshend’s songs tell the story of little Tommy Walker, a witness to the murder of his mother’s lover by his father, who has unexpectedly returned from the war after having been declared dead. The grown-ups tell the boy he’ll never see or hear or remember anything about what he’s witnessed, and, as a result, he becomes blind, deaf and dumb — a condition that’s remedied when he finally becomes a pinball wizard and cultural hero.
If this storyline strikes you as extremely unlikely, you probably haven’t seen very much classical opera.
Happily, the Eugene ballet version, which opened Saturday for a two-performance run at the Hult Center, gives full rein to the rock ‘n roll sensibility. This may be ballet, but it’s still a rock concert, with lights and smoke machines. You may want to use earplugs, which are available. (Having blown out my own hearing listening to works like Tommy 40 years ago, I actually might’ve preferred the volume to be a little louder, myself.)
And it may be rock ‘n roll, but it’s also ballet — and, ultimately, opera. Somehow the synergy between the three art forms pushes the slender emotions of the original album to new heights in this production. You can actually feel the story here.
As the familiar overture begins, the dancers act out the beginnings of the tale: the wartime marriage, the soldiers lost in battle, Capt. Walker’s unexpected arrival home and the murder in front of the boy.
I was enthralled from the beginning. One reason may be this: In 1969 my college roommate and I settled in for an ecstatic evening of mescaline and Tommy on the hi-fi. The music made, let’s say, an impression on my synapses that hasn’t faded.
Adding dance to the mix absolutely brings the experience of the music up by an order of magnitude. The occasional clunky lyrics and repetitive passages of the original album, all too apparent on more recent listenings, are redeemed by the visual counterpoint of dance.
Tommy is danced here by three separate dancers. Ethan Ares, a student at Eugene Ballet Academy, portrays the very young Tommy; Antonio Anacan dances the main role with considerable charm, especially considering he is dancing the role of a nearly comatose person for most of the show. Anacan shakes and trembles blankly as Tommy is abused over and over again by people like his evil babysitting cousin Kevin (Isaac Jones).
A wonderful touch is the addition of a third Tommy, the inner Tommy if you will. Jun Tanabe, often seen as a reflection of the deaf, dumb and blind kid gazing in the mirror, is the Tommy who soars in his own mind and, on stage, for ours.
Danielle Tolmie is perfectly slinky as the gypsy acid queen who is called on to cure the boy’s problems with sex.
But the best dances actually come from the entire company, whether at a Christmas party in Tommy’s youth or — with highly mobile pinball machines — celebrating Tommy as the pinball wizard.
While a purist might find a note or chord out of place here or there, the musicians do an excellent job of re-creating the album without making it sound like a recreation. One of the two vocalists, Siri Vik, is actually trained as an opera singer, and the only weak part of the music is that the rougher and looser voice of the other singer, Zak Johnson, isn’t a good match for the clarity and authority of hers.
A bit to my chagrin, the ballet cut some of the original story, leaving out the fabulously wicked uncle Ernie, who abuses the young Tommy with gusto in a song called Fiddle About. This sort of thing may be too much for our post-millennial sensibilities about sexual abuse, but I was sorry to see the song go.
That’s a small point. This show is a great fun, done with huge energy and enthusiasm, and if you have any love of rock ‘n roll or ballet either one you really ought to go see it Sunday afternoon.
Tommy the Ballet
Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble choreographs the Who’s 1969 rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard
Final performance 2 p.m. Sunday April 12
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall