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  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. The Who's Tommy from Victorian Opera
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  2. The Who's Tommy from Victorian Opera
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  3. The Who's Tommy from Victorian Opera
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  4. The Who's Tommy from Victorian Opera
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  5. The Who's Tommy from Victorian Opera
    Photograph: Jeff Busby

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The Who's acclaimed and electrifying rock opera comes to Melbourne's Palais Theatre

Victorian Opera’s Australian premiere of The Who’s Tommy was delayed three times due to lockdowns. Having finally made it, the visceral anticipation of being in one of Melbourne’s favourite music halls to hear a rock opera was met with the communal relief of remembering the joy of feeling live music in your bones.

Victorian Opera continues to explode any belief that opera is dated, dull or restricted to 19th century European aesthetics. The company programs and develops complex musical works that are about connecting with audiences today and questioning the creators’ original intent.
The Who released their double concept album Tommy in 1969. With its ongoing success, plus tours and concert versions, it became the record for serious listening and philosophical discussion, often while smoking something home grown and trying to lose your virginity to your favourite track (and not to the album’s song about sex abuse).

Written mostly by the band’s guitarist Pete Townshend (in his early 20s), the album is about Tommy, who witnesses a murder to become a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who’s a pinball wizard, a miracle cure sensation, a cult leader and an abandoned then redeemed messiah. All with an undercurrent of war trauma, childhood trauma; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; religious obsession; addiction; violence; and a family with so much PTSD that they couldn’t be written today because our understanding of multiple trauma would scream “stop”.

It's difficult to analyse Tommy with a contemporary perspective.

Which is possibly why the successful Broadway musical, also developed by Townshend in the early 1990s, tones down the sex, drugs, rock and trauma – especially when compared to the total mind flip that is Ken Russell’s 1975 film version. In this version, Tommy’s parents are more lovely than neglectful, Uncle Ernie hates himself, Cousin Kevin is more bully than violent abuser, Sally isn’t underage, and even the Acid Queen is more talk than action.

Without a sense of constant menace towards Tommy, there isn’t a sense of fear for the child, which makes it hard to care for him. And his ascent to messiah-cum-rock-god is more homemade scones at Sunday church than a cult serving Koolaid.

None of which makes this production any less enjoyable. With a consistently awesome ensemble, director Roger Hodgman lets the relevant themes of isolation, game addiction and false prophets ring clear. And it’s driven by some of our stone-cold best musical theatre singers and performers – including Matt Hetherington, Amy Lehpamer, Kanen Breen and Paul Capsis – who reveal the inner turmoil and conflict of their characters to fill in some of the gaps left by the confusing narrative.

And it sounds amazing. The Palais was built for opera and developed for rock. Musical director Matt Earle respects the original album and creates a rich and full sound, with an eight-piece orchestra, that fills the theatre. Even if you’re not a fan of the Who, this music has seeped into our cultural landscape. And if you didn’t first hear the music while wearing headphones and sitting on a shag-pile bean bag, the live version is a darn fine introduction.

Still, as silenced Tommy sings about his “haze of delirium” in a world that feels straight and safe, I wonder what it could have been like if the delirium and trauma had left us dumbstruck.

Written by
Anne-Marie Peard


From $39
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