The Who's rock opera Tommy has had a non traditional route to the stage, which goes some way to answering the obvious flaws in its narrative structure. Originally written as a concept album and later turned into a film starring Tina Turner and Elton John, the first stage production was attempted in America in the early 90s, with a West End production in 1996 starring Paul Keating.
Despite this, the musical is a refreshing break from jukebox shows where hit songs are thrown together into a basic book or biopic narrative. The Who's music is constantly captivating and progressive, making this musical something of a cultural icon for its time.
There is a terrific energy from this production that grabs you from the second it starts and doesn't drop throughout the whole two hours. Each of the cast are fully committed to both the material and the concept, despite at times it feeling too heavy handed and overstretched. The choreography is intense from the start, bringing life to each musical section and ramping up the energy making it feel more like a rock concert than a traditional musical.
Michael Strassen's direction is sometimes cluttered, which loses the narrative drive and focus of the piece. In a show where plot suffers at the hands of constant music and barely audible lyrics, actions are not always clear enough and we're never sure exactly where we should be looking. The prologue section for example was too overcrowded with too many concepts piled on top of each other, not fulfilling the basic requirement - that is to tell the story.
The cast are let down in part by the show's production values which goes against the highly professional work they are delivering. In a smaller venue you may be more forgiving, but with a large venue that already resembles a school hall theatre, not enough has been done to raise the overall level of production, and at times it feels like a student end of term show.
The outstanding element of the show is certainly the band and musical direction by Kevin Oliver Jones. Vocal performances are tight and well sung, in a score that never gives you a moment to relax. Sound issues however mean that lyrics are frequently lost, and I spent more than half of the show (which I must add was a final preview) not being able to hear a word anyone was saying. Hopefully this is something that will fix itself over time, as the narrative relies heavily on the lyrics.
Leading man Ashley Birchall sang well, showing impressive vocal stamina and dexterity throughout. In what is certainly a difficult part to pull off, he was more comfortable in the larger moments than the smaller small sections of book, and is supported throughout by a confident and fully committed multifaceted ensemble. The show was stolen by Giovanni Spano as Cousin Kevin, who had the most consistent and impressive vocals, as well as being the most impressive dancer and overall performer.
This is certainly an interesting opportunity to see a rarely staged musical, given a bold and energetic outing. Fans of The Who's music will not be disappointed, however those looking for a touch of the West End out in Greenwich may be.