Only one show in town can boast no risk of cell phone rage. Your Bose headphones firmly in place at “The Who’s Tommy” — piping in Steve Margoshes’ pulsating La Jolla and Broadway orchestrations and Pete Townshend’s lyrics with crystal clarity — will admit no outside ringing, and any text messages will blend with Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting effects. Brian Michael Purcell’s elaborate staging at the Ricardo Montalban Theater has its undercooked and raggedy patches, but the music’s energy and production elan are enough to carry the day. The kids are all right.
The fable of traumatized Tommy Walker (Aleks Pevec), turned pinball wizard and self-help guru, was retooled in 1993 into an allegory of lonely adolescence and rock celebrity in the Tony-winning hands of Townshend (whose personal journey inspired it) and Des McAnuff. Tuner acknowledges the healing capacity of love through music, a sentimental, more crowd-friendly approach than the 1969 concept album’s seething anger or the 1975 movie’s self-conscious gimmickry.
Light on theme and dramatic flow, a live “Tommy” needs to be a total-theater experience. Unfortunately, Vandy Scoates’ costumes are nondescript, and Brodie Alan Steele’s unit set shunts too much important action to far-side stairs, leaving the powerful central area underused. Limp flying effects aren’t worth the trouble.
But there’s something uniquely sensual about the immersion experience of James Johnson’s EXP3D sound system, amusingly matching left and right channels to the stage pictures and facilitating our connection to the lyrics as if listening at home. (Doing without eliminates the wartime and pinball SFX and makes the voices sound as if coming from next door.)
All the while, Sayeg drenches the stage in smoke and a dazzling succession of pure white theatrical spots and saturated color rock concert specials taking the place of elaborate scenography. (Cranking up the Montalban’s A/C to cope with the current heat wave could blow power to several city blocks.)
Revival impressively details Tommy’s predators, the gifted ensemble impersonating neighborhood roughnecks, professional bullyboys and obnoxious rock fans with equal facility. Denise Leitner’s choreography sometimes resembles warmed-over Twyla Tharp but rounds off act one with a spirited, hungry “Pinball Wizard.”
Though a stilted Nona Hendryx makes no impression as the Acid Queen, Hank Adams brings horrifying self-awareness to the pedophile Uncle Ernie, and PJ Griffith walks away with the show as feral Cousin Kevin, strutting and crotch-grabbing with Jagger-esque glee.
But for Kevin and Ernie, you might think catatonia ran in the Walker family, so bland and affectless is the characterization of Tommy’s parents (Alice Ripley and Tom Schmid). The production can’t decide whether they’re willful or unwitting contributors to the boy’s psychosomatic trauma, their repeated “Tommy, can you hear me?” lacking desperation or even interest. The characters’ mute impotence transmits no emotional signals and drags down the story each time they appear.
Fortunately, Pevec is well equipped to keep us engaged single-handedly, his good-natured Narrator always reminding us of the angel trapped inside the little boy. Once of age, rock-star charisma (and rock-hard pecs) render credible his burst of fame, and Pevec embodies the narcissism transforming the ecstatic declaration “I’m Free” into entrapment within delusions of grandeur.
Helmer Purcell underdirects several key sequences, beginning with POW Capt. Walker’s perfunctory rescue. Audiences will strain to figure out why Dad brings Tommy to the Acid Queen and what transpires. Blink and you miss the beating of Sally Simpson (Jenna Leigh Green), act two’s single most important event.
Still, Purcell wisely forgoes the family embraces that ended the Broadway “Tommy” on a queasy note of moral uplift. The lad achieves some rapprochement with his parents (another moment wanting clarity as to who reaches out to whom), but there’s no forgiveness for his other tormentors.
Instead, Tommy heeds his own “Following you, I climb the mountain” to mount the far upstage stairs alone, the music soaring as it has all night under Dan Redfeld’s assured direction.
There’s no closure. As with all great artists — not to mention the rest of us — the need to see me, feel me, touch me and heal me goes on.