Maidment Theatre
Sept 30-Oct 8 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

THE WHO’s Tommy (1969) was one of those iconic pieces of rock which I missed out on as a teenager. For a start, I was a teenager twenty years too late. Secondly, I was nowhere cool enough. But finally, in 2009, Stage Two productions has enabled me to see this rock musical up close and very, very live.

It’s no small thing to assemble an orchestra and full cast for a piece such as Tommy, and director/producer James Wenley has done a very good job on limited resources. Stage Two, the University of Auckland’s Drama club, has been prolific in recent years, producing both new and classical work as well as two well attended seasons of short plays (Stir Fried). Its dedicated group of multitasking actors, writers, designers and stagehands (and plenty of friends and family) were much in evidence on this production. Some talented collaborators from the musical theatre world also impressed.

In the program introduction, Wenley writes movingly of how Tommy influenced him growing up: "I feel Tommy still speaks to my generation, with our empty lives and celebrity focussed culture". This sense of nostalgia and reverence pervades his direction of the piece. Tommy is presented in period, without succumbing to the temptation of a modern update. The story, with its time jumping and improbable plot twists, is sometimes difficult to understand, not least because much of the plotline is contained in song lyrics which are often hard to make out. (The piece is also being presented to an audience who are more unfamiliar with The Who’s music than its first audiences were). But it is difficult not to succumb to the melodies and the heartfelt if unpolished presentation.

The vocal and acting talents of leads Paul Fagamalo (Tommy) and Sam Verlinden (Young Tommy) carry the piece. Fagamalo with his electric-shocked hairstyle and white blouse paired with tight white jeans is arresting in both appearance and voice, while Verlinden, a veteran of the Auckland musical theatre scene at 12, gives a mature performance as Young Tommy. Having such a young actor in the lead role emphasised the more disturbing themes of Tommy – how society treats someone who is "different", the repercussions of mental illness, violence and child sexual abuse – themes which have not changed much today and which the story does not flinch from portraying. Omar Al-Sobky gives a darkly vigorous if off-tune performance as the "fiddling" Uncle Ernie, while Oliver Page gives an equally menacing portrayal as the abusive Cousin Kevin. Special mention for acting goes to Chanel Turner who as Mrs Walker has to go through some of the most emotive changes in the piece, and for energy to Jonathan Riley who does an eyecatching turn as a breakdancing Minister.

Unfortunately, weak singing voices plus technological challenges marred many of the solos and duets, although the chorus was in general strong. Only some members of the cast wore mics (I assume this was due to limited availability rather than directorial choice), resulting in uneven duet pairings. In general the mics were turned down too low, making the songs hard to hear over the band in the tiny space of the Musgrove Theatre. Luckily the period costumes (by Nadine Gibson) and tight choreography (by Jane Yonge) significantly helped the narrative and made the show a visual treat. The large cast did a great job of coordinating their movements on the small stage area.

Speaking of tiny spaces, the ingenious design of the low-budget set (by Milli Jannedes) deserves commendation. Consisting of platforms on casters which transform variously into walls, parts of a house, a mirror and an outdoor yard, complex set changes were on the whole accomplished smoothly. Lighting (by Matt Lamb) in general augmented this, although sometimes too-tight spots meant some key cast members were left singing in the dark. The band did a fine job of a difficult score, especially given their short rehearsal time and small size.

In general, I was captured by the energy and sincerity of this production of The Who’s Tommy. For a student production, it’s impressive. I came away from the show both disturbed by the darkness of its themes and buoyed by its irrepressible energy.