Tommy was first conceived and recorded by the 23 year old Pete Townshend in 1968. It has now been re-conceived as a gender-bending Jazz explosion by Eric Mingus in a world premiere production for the 2015 Adelaide Festival of Arts.
Apart from the obvious differences – in Mingus’ production Tommy (in a Bruce Lee t-shirt and denim cut-off shorts) is a girl and The Acid Queen (in black sunglasses, white gloves and bright red feather boa) is a boy, the story remains the same.
The original Rock Opera has its flat moments and this Tommy is no different. At times there are up to 16 musicians on stage, it would have been a worthwhile enterprise for Mingus and Musical Director Giancarlo Vulcano to encourage some of the musicians to riff over the top of those flat moments with all the solo glory of the improvisation the genre has made famous.
[pull_left]Yael Stone brings the catatonic Tommy to life with all the joy of a butterfly breaking its cocoon[/pull_left]
The musicianship of the group is quite wonderful and the brass solos, particularly early on, were superb. Drummer Sim Cain provided some technically perfect highlights of his own, rocking things up for those audience members struggling with the interpretation.
Mingus’ own performance is often humorous as he takes a professionally casual approach. At times he’s conducting the musicians with mock-boxing moves then performs solo in a style little different to a Rundle Mall busker while at other moments he’s all 1970s Elvis Presley fronting the band with his back to the audience.
Harper Simon delivers songs in a folksy style reminiscent of his dad Paul. Gavin Friday gives a stellar performance in the roles of The Acid Queen and Uncle Ernie. In fact, Friday’s appearances are the thespian highlights of the show, his dramatic range is unequalled throughout the production. Yael Stone brings the catatonic Tommy to life with all the joy of a butterfly breaking its cocoon during a sensational ‘Sensation’. While dramatisation and staging isn’t the strong point of this production (to put it mildly), Camille O’Sullivan provided some traditional dramatic presence as Tommy’s drunken Mother.
Musically, Tommy does work as a Jazz piece but Jazz has transmogrified into a form performed and enjoyed almost exclusively by the white, upper middle class. This Tommy doesn’t rock that boat but it does gently swing in its own gender breeze.