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Remembrance of things past: Roger Daltry at Boston’s Orpheum Theater some 25 years ago, raising his arm in a pinball-wizard song cycle I’d only ever heard once on the radio. The flashing concert lights had stopped pulsing a few moments earlier and now the stage was bathed in the same bluish marijuana haze as the rest of the auditorium. Daltry clutched a microphone in one hand and seemed to reach for a star with the other. And as this rough British kid keened, “See me…feel me- eee-ee…” in his pure, sweet tenor, a pinpoint spotlight shot down from the lighting booth, traveling straight down the length of his arm and flaring just enough to light his face in an ecstatic glow. It seemed as if God had heard his cry. “Touch me,” pleaded the rock star, as every eye in the hall traveled back up the beam to find its source. “Heal me.”
Contemplation of things present: The memory plays tricks. A guy I went to that Who concert with says I’ve romanticized the hell out of it in retrospect. No doubt in time I’ll do the same to the staging gimmicks that make the glitzed-up touring version of The Who’s Tommy work similarly for a younger audience. Even now, I’ll concede that the show’s opening moments at the Opera House are as drop-dead gorgeous as current Broadway technology will allow. To set up Pete Townshend’s tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who becomes a cultural icon, director Des McAnuff must first send Tommy’s dad off to be lost in battle, so while the overture’s chords are crashing, he condenses all of World War II into five head-spinning minutes of mixed-media spectacle. A welder’s torch flares, airplane propellers twirl, and in a matter of seconds the proscenium arch fills with parachuting soldiers, machine-gun fire, and concentration-camp barbed wire.
Later in the evening, McAnuff will conjure other nifty frenzies at key moments. Attempts by doctors to reach Tommy after he’s traumatized by a murder in his parlor are accompanied by a combination of projections, stark color-changes, and much Broadway hoofing. When molested by his pedophilic Uncle Ernie and his sadistic Cousin Kevin, the lad retreats into a private world where his inner self is revealed in mirrors that light up from within. Tommy’s pinball wizardry erupts in eye-popping tableaux that culminate in a moment where the stage transforms itself into a huge pinball scoreboard. The Acid Queen gyrates and shrieks as flames leap from trash cans. And when Tommy’s pop stardom reaches its zenith, he’s astride a gleaming metallic monster of a pinball machine that bucks, thrashes, spins in the air, and spits fireworks as he pounds its controls.
But for all the smoke and mirrors—especially mirrors—director McAnuff and his incessantly inventive designers throw at Townshend’s classic score, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re more interested in illustrating its high points than in reinventing it as a dramatic vehicle. Ken Russell’s 1975 movie version could get away with flashy imagery for its own sake. At this late date, however, audiences have seen it all, which means stage imagery, no matter how spectacular, gets tiresome when it’s not actively advancing the plot. The stage Tommy is attractively cluttered, but I kept wishing it could be as pristine as the logic of its story. Admittedly, that’s not realistic in an age of megamusicals. Especially when the show’s pinball wizardry for rock celebrity metaphor lends itself so easily to decoration.
Much has been made in the two years since Tommy‘s Broadway opening of how willing Townshend has been to pander to the aging, Woodstock-era Who fans who are the most likely purchasers of the show’s $60 tickets. Rock critics have generally viewed deviation from the original album as sacrilege and trashed the new upbeat ending, while theater critics have been so relieved to hear the vigor of a real rock musical (as opposed to the rock-esque pastiches of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his clones) that they’ve not paid much attention to what it says.
Artists often rethink their early work as they get older, though not generally as sweepingly as Townshend has here. He was still in his 20s when he crafted this particular tale of teen alienation, and is obviously feeling less alienated a quarter-century later. Where Tommy always greeted the return of his sight and hearing with the ecstatic, “I’m free/I’m free/And freedom tastes of reality,” he didn’t originally deflate that assertion with the follow-up line, “freedom lies here in normality.” Had anyone but the original author penned that sentiment, there’d no doubt be hell to pay. Normality?!? What kind of goal is that for a rock song?
On the other hand, such pap is perfectly appropriate in a Broadway musical, which is (despite a somewhat higher decibel level than is usual for the form) what Tommy now is at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The changes Townshend made in the plot are mostly minor, but telling. By having Tommy’s dad do the shooting rather than the dying in the murder that traumatizes the budding pinball wizard; then adding one song to express Mummy and Daddy’s love for their deaf dumb and blind kid; and switching song order slightly in the rock opera’s second half, Townshend has turned Tommy into a paean to the joys of family and conformity. It is now precisely the sort of show to which formerly longhaired baby boomers can comfortably take their own teen-agers.
And be flattered in the bargain. For as McAnuff has staged the finale, it’s all about the miracle of the audience. Just before the final curtain, the anthem “Listening to You,” sung initially by the sightless Tommy to his own image in the mirror, is turned around and redirected at the folks out front. “Listening to you,” sings the now-sighted lad, staring straight at patrons occupying orchestra seats, “I get the music/Gazing at you, I get the heat/ Following you, I climb the mountain/I get excitement at your feet.” How’s that for ingratiating? What began as a hymn to the self gets transformed into a hymn to the customers. The message becomes the marketing.
Still, for the first hour-and-a-half, the show works well on its own terms, powered by the energy of Townshend’s music and the muscle of Wayne Cilento’s frenetic choreography. During scenes of Tommy’s youth, Cilento can’t resist throwing in some Grease-like dance bits, but for the most part, he’s restrained his show-bizziest impulses.
Chris Parry’s Broadway-by-way- of-rock-concert lighting and John Arnone’s ever-shifting screens (onto which Wendall K. Harrington projects what must be thousands of images) contribute to a surprising sense of production lightness, considering that the scenic equipment reportedly weighs 20 tons. (My source for that figure is a KenCen handout that also mentions the production’s 13 computers, 27 slide projectors, 375 computer-controlled lights, and multiscreen video tower to highlight the show’s state-of-the-artiness. Just how important this all is is debatable. The video tower was malfunctioning on opening night, and after a while the technicians simply turned it off, which didn’t seem to make much difference overall.)
The music—which wasn’t nearly loud enough at the KenCen opening, but still managed to prompt complaints from some of my critical colleagues—is played by an eight-piece pit band. For most musicals, that would seem tiny, but here it counts as inflation, since the original was played by a mere quartet. Under Wendy Bobbitt’s spirited direction, the musicianship is reasonably faithful to the show’s rock origins.
The cast is adequate without being especially striking. Michael Arnold makes Cousin Kevin an intriguingly oily sleazoid, while Stephen Lee Anderson assays Uncle Ernie with creepy Broadway panache. Christy Tarr and Jordan Leeds (a dead ringer for Alec Baldwin) are effective as Tommy’s folks. And Kennya Ramsey does as much as a mere mortal can probably do to overcome memories of Tina Turner as the film’s Acid Queen.
When it comes to the title character, a few allowances must be made. The young performers who play Tommy at ages 4 (Rachel Beth Levenson or Caitlin Newman, depending on the night) and 10 (Brett Levenson) are hamstrung by a problem intrinsic to the material: The character is relentlessly passive. The songs comment on him but, as long as he’s deaf, dumb, and blind, he can’t reveal himself through action. Steve Isaacs, who plays the adult Tommy, first in the mirror, and later in the flesh, has a different problem. Though he’s sure-voiced, central, and plenty impassioned, he’s playing a figment of his own character’s imagination for two-thirds of the evening, and with everyone onstage pretending he’s invisible, it’s hard for him to have much impact. In the evening’s final scenes, Isaacs makes a firmer impression, but by then I’m afraid I, for one, had cooled to the whole idea of Tommy. The plot alterations seemed to have turned the character into a peculiarly calculating rock-star stand-in —one who still resembled a ’60s superstar, but a superstar well past the first bloom of youth. By the time the stage Tommy reaches his curtain call, he’s as grown up as any of the aging baby boomers in the audience. As grown up, in fact, as The Who.
Which reminds me….When “The Kids Are Alright” tour got to D.C. a few years back, I made a pilgrimage to RFK Stadium to try to recapture the spirit of that 1970 Who concert I’d witnessed. Daltry was in terrific voice and I briefly thought the years might melt away, but of course they didn’t. Where he’d once had a pantherlike grace, he now had the smooth moves of an athlete. Singing of alienation, he was awesome but practiced—still the rock star, still a sensation—but his plaintive tenor was that of a seasoned pro, not of a rough kid.
As I watched him at RFK, it registered that the real Daltry could never again be the Daltry I preserved in my memory. Maybe he never was. And as I watched the tail end of Tommy, it occured to me that for much the same reason, the show can’t be the pristine experience I want it to be. We’ve all grown up too much…even the youngest of us. These days, when a pinpoint spot shoots down a singer’s arm and flares just enough to light his face in an ecstatic glow, I consider it a neat lighting trick. I no longer look up the beam.