The Who’s Tommy

Make room, in the Age of Nintendo, for some new magic by the Pinball Wizard.

Make room, in the Age of Nintendo, for some new magic by the Pinball Wizard.

“Tommy,” which elevated rock ‘n’ roll to a new plateau when Pete Townshend and his British band, the Who, introduced it as a two-LP rock opera in 1969, has been reshaped and focused into a theatrical phenomenon. It dazzles with its flash and impresses with its substance.

For La Jolla Playhouse’s opening night, enveloped in atmospheric mugginess rare to this oceanside community, the Mandel Weiss Theater air-conditioning system went on the fritz and delayed curtain time. That, however, was about the only thing that didn’t work for this production.

“Tommy” illustrated that it’s too hot to cool down. Townshend and director Des McAnuff have fitted the familiar musical fable of the deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball into a nearly libretto-less vehicle that throbs along at speedway pace for just over two hours.

One scene eases seamlessly into another, usually via raised tempo and decibels. All the while, the large cast — nearly two dozen — hardly misses a beat.

Ken Russell’s 1975 film was criticized chiefly for its excess but praised for its hallucinogenic visuals. McAnuff — backed by a marvelous design squad — has made this “Tommy” a multimedia extravaganza for an MTV society.

Television influences permeate John Arnone’s constantly shifting set, sometimes literally — as with a line of TVs that descend and rise to punctuate one scene — or optically, as in the huge backdrop segmented into nine screens for coordinated or contrasting images.

Arnone goes deep into his bag of stage tricks, using trapdoors, a plethora of drop-down props and graphic projections on a proscenium-sized scrim. One crowd scene becomes an in-crowd scene: the assemblage depicted on the backdrop resembles the group on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 “Sgt. Pepper” album.

Frances Aronson’s lighting shows equal spirit, range and versatility, especially brilliant in the first-act closer. As Tommy demonstrates his pinball mastery, the stage becomes a giant game screen, colorfully ringing up stratospheric point totals and putting the audience into frenetic sensory overload.

In effect, it’s a ’60s pop concert with ’90s visuals. Steve Kennedy’s sound design, however, keeps the decibel level more comfortable than was typical with the Who’s thundering concerts, wisely allowing Townshend’s lyrics to be heard.

All the key music is in place, sometimes trimmed or subdued but not in important numbers like “Pinball Wizard,””See Me, Feel Me,””I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As in the original, the only non-Who song is Sonny Boy Williamson’s fitting “Eyesight to the Blind.”

The plot remains essentially the same: A young boy is traumatized into a refusal to hear, see or speak. He’s treated with contempt, molested by an uncle and tortured by a cousin until they discover he’s a pinball virtuoso.

He develops a following, which, bedazzled by his subsequent miracle cure, begins to idolize him. Then a serious injury to one of his followers returns him to reality.

It’s open, of course, to many and varied interpretations–for instance, a young generation alienated by the violence of its elders — but such analyses often amuse Townshend, one of rock’s intellectuals, whose career has alternated between trying to turn his music into art and then poking fun at such pretensions.

The Who itself, with its self-mocking name, has somehow managed to appeal equally to eggheads, head-bangers and head cases.

This edition changes the story from the film in two significant aspects. The killing Tommy witnesses is of his mother’s lover by his father, rather than the reverse, as depicted in the film.

That works better because it makes more credible the man’s resulting care for the stricken child. And this ending is upbeat, in line with the family values ‘ 90s.

Still, the more coherent storyline hasn’t solved all the weaknesses. The whole messianic theme continues to seem tacked on, resulting in a weaker second act. And there’s still the distastefulness of the molesting uncle being portrayed as mainly a lovable rogue.

Nevertheless, it’s a juicy role, and Paul Kandel gives it full measure. Also notable in a uniformly stalwart troupe are Michael Cerveris as the grown Tommy and Marcia Mitzman as his mother (no, she doesn’t get to cover herself, Ann-Margret style, with baked beans and chocolate). Cheryl Freeman contributes sultrily as the Gypsy, wailing “The Acid Queen.”

David C. Woolard’s costumes put the color in the right places and proportions , and Wayne Cilento’s choreography adds to the overall sprightliness.

One projected image on the curtain appears to have special significance — a hypnotic eyes-and-brows logo that will look just right on a Broadway poster.

The Who’s Tommy

Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla; 492 seats; $32.75 top

  • Production: A La Jolla Playhouse production of a two-act rock opera composed and written by Pete Townshend, adapted for the stage by Townshend and Des McAnuff; director, McAnuff.
  • Crew: Choreography, Wayne Cilento; scenic design, John Arnone; costume design , David C. Woolard; lighting, Frances Aronson; sound, Steve Kennedy; projection design, Wendall Harrington; musical supervision and direction, Joseph Church; orchestrations, Steve Margoshes. Reviewed July 9, 1992; runs through Aug. 9.
  • Cast: <B>Cast:</B> Anthony Barrile, Nicky Carin, Michael Cerveris, Jonathan Dukochitz, Rick Fitts, Tom Flynn, Dennis Fox, Cheryl Freeman, Trisha Gooch, David Harris, Christian Hoff, Paul Kandel, Donnie Kehr, Lisa Leguillou, Anthony Marciona, Marcia Mitzman, Lee Morgan, Hilary Morse, Nino Pamaran, Rain Pryor, Alice Ripley , Scott Ripley, Carly Jane Steinborn.
  • Music By: