Clarence Brown Ends on High Note with Tommy

Pete Townshend's Tommy is such a familiar part of the cultural landscape that it's easy to forget just how weird it really is.

Like all vital arts organizations, the Clarence Brown Theatre is, in equal parts, exhilarating and infuriating. This is as it should be; if a theater is to take risks then by definition it must occasionally misjudge, offend, and even fail, and the frustration felt when it misses the mark is an unconscious tribute to the loyalty and sense of shared ownership the theater has inspired.

At the end of a season in theater, as in football, one hopes not for a perfect score but for more good results than bad. By this measure 2008-9 has been a success for the Clarence Brown, and it ends happily and deservedly with a hit, a palpable hit. The show—The Who's Tommy, directed by Casey Sams—is admirable for its spirit, its ambition, and for the proof it gives that the theater's tastes are nothing if not catholic.

On arrival, audience members are warned that the show "contains gun shots, flashing lights, adult language, and sexual content," and you can't really ask more of an evening than that. The production certainly delivers these, but equally memorable are its moments of subtle beauty and haunting power.

Tommy is such a familiar part of the cultural landscape that it's easy to forget just how weird it really is. Fans who maintain a total, unswerving love for it generally don't spot its sections of formidable stodginess or its excessive length, whereas those entirely immune to its charms tend to miss its boundless creativity and its twisted route to redemption.

First surprise of the night is seeing the Clarence Brown's artistic director, Cal MacLean, playing guitar in the onstage band, a minor shock equivalent to spotting one's accountant at a strip club. MacLean presumably used an argument similar to that of Bob Geldof when justifying the presence of his one-hit-wonders the Boomtown Rats at Live Aid: "It's my ball, and if I can't play with it I'm taking it home." The band makes a great sound, however, and what they lack in light and shade they make up for in intuitive groove.

It's a fairly simple matter to ramp up the band. High-volume vocals, however, are altogether more of a slippery fish, and here they are often either leaden or squawky, failing to do full justice to the cast. Otherwise the sheer technical expertise of the show is breathtaking. Christopher Pickart has sculpted a versatile set bursting with good ideas, the most effective of which comes at the end, a trippy parallax of sunrise in which the stage seems to be alternately moving towards and away from us.

Director Sams serves also as choreographer, and it is here that her gifts truly come alive, with ensemble dancing that is high-spirited and rugged yet wholly disciplined. The most outstanding moments are those using wires, and Jonathan Visser's Tommy is given almost carte blanche with these. His early flight to the roof by hanging onto a small balloon is but a prelude to the balletic, hypnotic extravagances of the second act.

Visser once again proves himself an actor worth watching. He happens to have a strong resemblance to Conan O'Brien, and indeed shares a manic, twitchy alertness with the comedian, which he uses here to his advantage, most especially in the climax to Act One, when, pinball-bound at last, he jerks and tremors in endless tactile frisson.

It is "Pinball Wizard," of course, that is the high point of Tommy, and the pedalled crescendo in the build-up to this song is as unbearably exciting as anything by Rossini. The music reaches its apotheosis when the most famous phrase in the show is sung with unbelievable intensity by the leering, mohawked Quinn Q. Cason. Here he is given just a few syllables, but the effect is mesmerizing.

For all its minor flaws, the show is a glorious, messy, lovable production that is so strongly felt and urgently delivered that it's difficult not to be won over by the sheer passion of the artists and the grandiosity of its vision. It's the first show I've seen in the Clarence Brown that makes the space seem too small.