While other musicals try to produce songs audiences can hum on their way out, “The Who’s Tommy” has the opposite onus: Living up to the 1969 album that was the soundtrack for a generation. Spectacular staging and that still-unbeatable score notwithstanding, the touring production of the Broadway hit ultimately has all the heart of a World Cup pre-game show. Still, that shouldn’t keep audiences that are hungry for live-on-stage pyrotechnics from having a wonderful time.
Rock god-turned-rock-‘n’-roll-eminence grise Pete Townshend and theater vet Des McAnuff, aided by some top-notch technicians, have re-imagined the former’s original story into a celebration of dysfunctional family values.
While the Who’s original was an admittedly mushy-minded exploration of the cult of celebrity, an older, more reflective Townshend has scaled back his narrative ambitions.
So while the 1969 story climaxed at a mass, outdoor gathering where Tommy’s followers ultimately rejected the Messianic pinball wizard, now the finale happens in his parents’ home. And when he ultimately reverts to his nearly autistic state, Tommy does it in the embrace of his family. Hey, even Cousin Kevin (RogerBart) — the self-described “nastiest play friend you ever could meet”– ends up hugging the pinball wiz.
If the story is scaled back, the production is anything but, charged by a breathless pace and eye-popping visuals. Frenetic projections, swift set changes (as with the recent revival of “My Fair Lady,” this staging seems inspired by the work of Rene Magritte) and a tireless cast make sure audiences don’t dwell too much on the thin plotting.
Even without some of the more elaborate visual effects of the Broadway production, this staging is a wonder. Wendall K. Harrington’s rear projections — placing us in war-time England, a doctor’s office or even inside the young Tommy’s mind — are especially effective. So, too, is the energetic choreography by Wayne Cilento.
Would that this inspiration carried over to the performers in some key roles. William Youmans is anemic as Uncle Ernie, Kennya Ramsey’s Gypsy is clumsy and unconvincing and, in particular, Steve Isaacs is a wan, uncharismatic grown-up Tommy.
Others fare better, including Hilary Morse as the groupie Sally Simpson, Bart as the evil Kevin (who becomes a fascistic bodyguard for his cousin) and Destan Owens, who stands out as the strongest voice in the ensemble.
That ensemble provides most of the show’s musical highlights, their voices rising to a chilling crescendo in such songs as “Sensation” and “Pinball Wizard.”
Perhaps the reason the road production falls short of previous stagings comes from the setting. “Tommy” must’ve seemed fresh and invigorating in its July ’92 staging at the La Jolla Playhouse, or the still-running Broadway production at the St. James Theatre. Here, at last, was the integration of rock ‘n’ roll energy and showmanship into the increasingly creaky form of the Broadway musical , where only Stephen Sondheim seems to have anything new to say.
That sense of rebirth doesn’t translate to the Universal Amphitheatre, a venue designed more for concerts than legit theater. Instead of rock energy infused into theater, this feels like theatrical conventions imposed on a rock score.
Ultimately, it’s unfair to compare this production to the Who’s landmark original. Its aims and ambitions are different; Townshend and McAnuff aren’t trying for the visceral impact of a rock concert.
It’s certain they are, however, trying to emotionally charge the audience. But all the stunning visuals and timeless songs can’t overcome a certain coldness at the show’s core. Deaf, dumb and blind it is not, but neither, alas, is this a sensation.