Franklin Cottrell as the Pinball Wizard in The Who's Tommy
Franklin Cottrell as the Pinball Wizard in The Who's Tommy

It may have been written in 1992, based on an album released in 1969, but The Who’s Tommy remains surprisingly relevant in 2016.

Based on The Who’s concept album Tommy, this rock musical was penned by the bands guitarist, Pete Townshend, and former Stratford Festival artistic director, Des McAnuff. It tells the story of Tommy, struck deaf, dumb and blind after a traumatic experience in his early life. Despite his disabilities, Tommy goes on to become a pinball phenom, eventually rising to the superstar status after miraculously recovering his senses.

Tackling a myriad of issues that include disabilities, abuse, bullying, drugs and the dynamics of family, there is an underlying current of social change that still feels fresh and hopeful. The central theme of Tommy’s rise to stardom fits particularly well in our modern age of celebrity obsession and hero worship. It helps too that great swaths of Townshend’s music remains so memorable.

Told in a series of short vignettes, the musical covers the twenty year span from Tommy’s birth in 1942 to his eventual rise to fame in the early 1960s.  Under Chris Lam’s direction, in this Renegade Arts Company production, while the story is clear, the show feels so rushed at times that some of the necessary visceral and emotional connections are lost. This is particularly true in the second act as Tommy regains his senses, and rises to fame.

It doesn’t help either that the cast largely sings without the benefit of microphones. Even in the relatively small Shop Theatre space, relying on unamplified voices becomes problematic. And while acknowledging that sound equipment can be expensive for a small independent theatre company tackling musicals, sound really should be everything. It becomes an even bigger imperative for rock operas like The Who’s Tommy.

Having a particularly tough time overcoming the sound issue is Amy Gartner as Tommy’s mother. While Gartner has a nice voice, she was often difficult to hear. To be entirely fair though, she wasn’t the only one who struggled to be heard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ensemble creates a beautiful sound when they come together, and there are a few individual stand-out performances.

As Uncle Ernie, Tim Howe captures the sleaziness of his character with ease. One of the strongest voices of the night, Howe didn’t quite suffer so much without a microphone. While Mark Wolf as Tommy’s father has a great voice, he did get hamstrung in the breakneck pace of the show, preventing him from building the necessary emotional arc of his character.

In the central role of Tommy, Franklin Cottrell also does justice to Townsend’s music, but we never quite believe in his messianic rise to fame. As the two younger versions of himself, Joshua and Jeremiah Vezina also do nice work. The interactions between the three were welcome respites from the chaos.

Anna Kuman’s choreography is aggressive and challenging, but it sometimes seemed beyond this young cast’s abilities. Marilyn LaVac-Repanos must have been one of the hardest working costume designers in Vancouver in recent months, with what appears to be an unprecedented number of costume changes for this large cast. The ubiquitous scaffolding set that is the go-to for these types of shows may be practical, but it did contribute to some of the sound issues when the cast found themselves pushed upstage.

The Who’s Tommy marks the final show for Renegade Arts Company in the old Vancouver Playhouse scene shop. Slated for demolition to make way for a new development, they will soon be moving to new digs on East Broadway. And even while Tommy does not quite reach the same heights of Renegade’s production of Hair earlier this year, it does continue to bode well for this young company’s future.

The Who’s Tommy with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend. Book and lyrics by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. A Renegade Arts Company production on stage at The Shop Theatre until November 16. Tickets available online at Brown Paper Tickets.