A Tommy for the Twenty-First Century

Stratford’s production reunites members of the original Tony-winning team – including co-creator and director Des McAnuff

By Ann Swerdfager

Since starting as the Festival’s Artistic Director in 2008, Des McAnuff has probably been asked one question more than any other: When are you going to do Tommy? Little did those inquiring minds know that it would be after the completion of his tenure at the Festival that Mr. McAnuff would have an opportunity to direct the show that rocketed him to superstardom in the 1990s.

Based on The Who’s 1969 concept album Tommy, mostly composed by Pete Townshend, the groundbreaking stage musical was created by Mr. Townshend and Mr. McAnuff, who together wrote the libretto. Working largely out of La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where Mr. McAnuff was then Artistic Director, the two transformed the album (which had been made into a movie in 1975) into the most technically advanced musical Broadway had ever seen.

In 1993, Tommy swept the Tony Awards, winning Best Director for Mr. McAnuff, Best Score for Mr. Townshend, Best Choreography for Wayne Cilento, Best Design for John Arnone and Best Lighting Direction for Chris Parry. It played Broadway’s St. James Theatre for more than two years and went on to be produced by touring companies throughout North America and Europe. A West End revival was produced in London in 1996 and ran for a full year, as did the Toronto production in 1995.

It’s been almost twenty years since Canadian fans have had a chance to see Tommy on stage. Now the show will make its Stratford debut in a new production directed by its co-creator and Tony-winning director, a fact that will add immensely to its appeal.

Mr. McAnuff’s incredible track record has earned him repute as the top director of rock musicals in the world. His production of Jersey Boys, for instance, is a global phenomenon. It won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, has been playing on Broadway since 2005 and has toured North America. In addition, Mr. McAnuff has directed productions of it in London’s West End, Las Vegas, Chicago, Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Philadelphia, Auckland and Brisbane.

Mr. McAnuff’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring Paul Nolan as Jesus, took Stratford by storm in 2011, playing to sold-out houses and winning praise from creators Sir Tim Rice and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as from Norman Jewison, director of the film version, all of whom visited Stratford because buzz about the show had reached far beyond Canada’s borders. The production moved on to successful runs in La Jolla and on Broadway, taking its cast along for the ride of their lives.

Stratford’s production of Tommy welcomes the return of Paul Nolan as Cousin Kevin in a cast that also includes newcomer Robert Markus in the title role, Steve Ross as Uncle Ernie, Jewelle Blackman as the Gypsy, Kira Guloien as Mrs. Walker and Jeremy Kushnier as Captain Walker. Many members of the show’s original creative team reunite for this production, including choreographer Wayne Cilento, designer John Arnone and, of course, Mr. McAnuff. And thanks to amazing advances in stagecraft and technology over the past 20 years, the show that wowed audiences with its wizardry in 1993 is set to blow the roof off the Avon Theatre in 2013.

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