In 1969, just four long-players into their career, British rock legends The Who released their ambitious double concept album Tommy, the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy. It’s widely regarded as the first commercially successful ‘rock opera’. Purists will suggest that fellow UK rockers The Pretty Things were the first to produce a rock opera of any kind with their concept album S.F. Sorrow a year earlier. However the obscure record never achieved the same level of mainstream fame that Tommy did.

Original album cover

Many theatre productions of Tommy have been staged around the world since including the famous Australian production, performed at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1973, featuring The Who’s Keith Moon as the character Wicked Uncle Ernie. The Australian cast also included Daryl Braithwaite, Jim Keays, Broderick Smith, Colleen Hewitt, Wendy Saddington, Ross Wilson, Billy Thorpe and more.  In 1975 Producer Ken Russell released his fantasy movie version of Tommy, with a cast including members of The Who, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson. More recently, Tommy was staged in London’s West End and on Broadway in America, where it became a 5 time Tony Award winning musical.

Now in 2021, after initially being scheduled for the annus horribilis that was 2020, the Victorian Opera is due to stage a brand new version of Tommy from August 13-21 at The Palais Theatre in St.Kilda.

In a role approved by The Who’s Pete Townshend himself, Victorian Opera welcomes back rising star Mat Verevis (A Little Night Music, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Nine Network’s The Voice) as Narrator / Tommy. As Captain Walker, musical theatre icon Matt Hetherington (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Gypsy) joins the cast and returns to the Australian stage after several years in the United States. Hetherington stars alongside leading lady Amy Lehpamer (School of Rock, The Sound of Music) as Mrs. Walker. The duo makes their Victorian Opera debut in the production. Legendary performer Paul Capsis takes on the iconic role of The Gypsy (Acid Queen), with Victorian Opera favourite Kanen Breen (Black Rider, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Uncle Ernie and Vincent Hooper (The Rocky Horror Show) as Cousin Kevin.

Mat Verevis

Mat Verevis, best known for his performance as Barry Mann in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is excited about his role as Narrator / Tommy in the upcoming production. It’s no surprise that at Mat’s young age, he really didn’t know a lot about Tommy until he auditioned for it.
“As a youngster I saw the album flying around in dad’s collection,” Mat recalls. “Really though, probably the first time I heard the music was when I was at drama school, WAPA in West Australia. Long story short, I think I didn’t really know it at all until I auditioned for it and looked into it.”

It’s not uncommon for performers not to want to watch other versions of the shows they are appearing in, so they can create their own fresh take on their character. However Mat was more than willing to soak up the musical’s history and view some clips from productions in the UK and USA.
“I did watch some because it is a unique musical and I wanted to get a sense of what it was like in other versions,” Mat explained. “I have seen snippets on YouTube but haven’t watched the whole thing and I have seen snippets of the film as well, which is a bit different. So I just wanted to get a sense of it rather than copy anything.”

Preparing to perform a famous 50 year old rock opera that he was not very familiar with, I wondered if Mat had conjured any pre-conceived ideas and whether there was anything about the show which had surprised him?

“You know what surprised me, is how moving it is,” he says without hesitation. “I had these ideas about the show, that it was all about the music and this unique storyline but I never really thought about how that would make me feel when you reach the end of it. There’s something about it. It’s really stirring. It touches on something that is quite unique.”

The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, who wrote most of the music for Tommy has given his personal blessing on the Victorian Opera’s casting of Verevis. It’s a fact Mat wasn’t aware of until well after he’d won the role.

“I actually didn’t know either to be honest, it was a surprise to me,” Mat tells me. “I have worked with Victoria Operan before and I went in to audition just for one day because I was on tour with Lea Salonga at that point. I did one audition for them and then weeks later found out that I had got the part. It wasn’t until the launch in March 2020 that they told me that ‘Pete actually ticked off on you” and I was quite surprised and shocked.”

Mat suggests that musically, this version of Tommy is closer to The Who’s version than the Broadway musical version and his award-winning performance as Barry Mann in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has prepared him well vocally for some of the more demanding songs in Tommy.

“I had to sing some rocky material in Beautiful and I definitely had to access a different part of my voice for that show and I am definitely using that now in this. Our treatment of the music is closer to the original album than it is to the Broadway recording, so it’s a little bit more contemporary and rocky.”

While Mat is excited to be performing Tommy, he’s as equally nervous given the short, intense rehearsal schedule Melbourne’s 5th lockdown has burdened the cast with. They had been fitting in as much rehearsal as they could via zoom but are relieved now to be back together in the rehearsal space shaping the new production into something very special.

“We’re a creative team and Vic Opera is so great and so organised,” says Mat. “I think if there is any company that can get this together and do it to a great standard, it’s this one.”

Like many other musicians around the world, either stuck in lockdowns or hampered by gig-cancelling restrictions, Mat turned to songwriting as a way of expressing his feelings during the pandemic and this year he released a six track EP of original songs, funnily enough titled ‘EP’. His pride and joy songwriting tool is a 1970 Fender Rhodes that his father hand restored for him. Mat is fully aware of the extent of damage caused to the entertainment industry  workforce during the past 18 months but considers himself one of the luckier artists.

“I have been really fortunate throughout all of this, apart from 2020 which I think for the most part was a write off for everyone. As soon as things started to open up I did  show at the start of the year at the opera house. I count myself as one of the luckiest, as lucky a you can get in this time. I was at home with family the whole time and I know a lot of people were away from loved ones. This is probably the most difficult I have had to do a show with a 2 week lockdown in the middle of preparations but fingers crossed all will be fine from here on.”

And the grand plan for Mat?

“I’m loving what I am doing at the moment and tackling a variety of shows and roles and stretching my skills. Releasing original music, as I have just done, I’d like to keep doing that. I would love to go overseas one day and give that a crack over there but I won’t die disappointed if that never happens. I just want to keep doing what I am doing and creating stuff I love and I’m proud of … I’m really excited to sing this show. It’s the biggest I’ve ever had to do, so gloves off … bring it on and I’m up for the challenge. I’m continually trying to challenge myself and get better.”


The Who’s Tommy
Palais Theatre, St Kilda