“Tommy” by Pete Townsend of The Who

I remember the sixties! Rock-n-roll! I saw a few blockbuster performances (“Jesus Christ Superstar” comes to mind) but I missed the rock opera “Tommy”. I think I owned the LP record. I know the music well.

“Tommy” was made into a movie in 1975 and a Broadway show in 1993. There have been occasional productions since that time. It’s the story of a child who witnesses a murder and becomes unresponsive, “deaf, dumb and blind”.

The recent Open Circle Theatre presentation keeps the wonderful music and most of the original plot, but reconceives the whole meaning of the story.

How? For starters, the production is bilingual in English and ASL. It’s NOT a musical with interpreters. The interpretation is fully integrated onto the stage and into the action, with each major character “shadowed” or “mirrored” so the plot is fully accessible to the hearing impaired. Tommy is actually played by four actors – two children (Tommy at different ages), deaf actor Russell Harvard in the leading role and my amazingly talented nephew Will Hayes as the narrator and “voice” of Tommy, who sings some of the iconic music of the piece.

Open Circle Theatre is a wonderful troupe dedicated to “demonstrating that inclusion of people of all abilities can make a production MORE intriguing, MORE innovative, and MORE beautiful by combining the talents of all of humanity.” The cast of “Tommy” included performers in wheel chairs.

“Tommy” was reconsidered from the point of view of the handicapped, who (I think) couldn’t really identify with the “miracle” of Tommy’s sudden complete recovery. In this version, Tommy recovered to a different kind of normal, that of a fluent speaker of American Sign Language. It works!

I wish this musical was still in production, so I could tell everyone to see it. I won’t be surprised if it’s repeated. Maybe on Broadway! The performance at Black Box Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, took place in October and November of 2016. For a detailed review, see the Washington Post, October 31, 2016.

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