As theater, "Tommy" is dumb. As packaging, it's great. And since our theater has less and less to do with theater and more and more to do with packaging, maybe "Tommy" is a breakthrough.
At this point, I should reveal that until I put on the CD Monday night, I was probably the only living American who was unacquainted with "Tommy." I knew what it was about, but I had not seen the movie. (Though I still have not outgrown my love for Disney, I outgrew Ken Russell early on - hence I skipped his version of "Tommy.")
My major reaction was astonishment that this rather harmless score was, indeed, the epochal "Tommy" - the work a generation invested with profundity, the work that, in a controversial one-night stand in 1970, had brought rock to the Metropolitan Opera.
To ears accustomed to classical musical theater, "Tommy" is, I'm afraid, hard to take seriously.
Its lyrics are primitive, its music sometimes sweet, invariably repetitive. Its beat is, of course, relentless.
The best thing about it seems to be the harmonics in the ensemble numbers. (In certain ways "Tommy" was a revelation. Knowing that this, rather than, say, "Guys and Dolls," is the inspiration for today's composers, I have a new appreciation for "Les Miz" and "Cats.")
Older readers may remember a time when musical theater insisted upon character, plot and something called dramatic irony. All these things, of course, are now passe. So "Tommy" is perfectly acceptable as a contemporary musical.
Moreover, when you revive the old shows you have to find singers who can act, which, judging by the results, must be incerasingly difficult. With a show like "Tommy," that's really not necessary, since the characters are pretty much stick figures and thus not hard to play.
Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Wayne Cilento have given the actors so much movement that at times they seem like robots going through their precisely ordained paces. As it happens, Michael Cerveris, who plays Tommy as an adult; Marcia Mitzman, who plays his mother, and Jonathan Dokuchitz, who plays his father, are all good actors, which I know from having seen them do other work. What they do here is so rigidly structured it never seems human.
Even making themselves intelligible seems unnecessary. The amplification makes it very hard to hear the lyrics, but I was probably the only person in the audience who didn't already know them by heart.
The actors, of course, are incidental to the constantly changing visuals around them. At one point, the whole interior of the St. James is full of projections and flashing lights to make it seem as though we are right inside Tommy's pinball machine. The audience applauded wildly, as they had earlier, when Tommy did a double somersault in the air, and when his Uncle Ernie downed a huge mug of beer and gave forth a gigantic belch.
Visually, "Tommy" is always fun. Meaning does not play a great role in it, but meaning, like plot and character, is old hat. The contents may be vodka ordinaire; the bottle is Absolut.
What goes around comes around - or so they say - and The Who's "Tommy," billed in 1969 as the "first rock opera," has certainly been around.
But, fine-tuned to a farethewell in a brand and glitzily new shape by Des McAnuff, "The Who's Tommy" came around to the St. James Theater last night in blazing triumph, and Broadway - or so they might one day say - will never be the same again.
This second coming of a rock legend is piquantly the first time genuine hard-core rock has been on Broadway - other shows have tried, but here at last is the real turtle soup, not the mock.
The story, strengthened by a revised book by the original composer and lyricist Pet Townshend and the show's director, McAnuff, tells of a kid who survives the London blitz only to witness a murder which traumatizes him, leaving him deaf, dumb and blind, stranded in zombieland, abused and maligned.
He proves to be a "pinball wizard" and on his eventual recovery becomes idolized, and the whole picture can, if you like, be interpreted as a psychedelic parable of pop.
Tommy, as the ultimate rock star, finding himself through breaking a mirror (rather than the guitars, manically destroyed by Townshend in his heydey), inviting the world to his door (in a scene even given a Sgt. Pepper backdrop!) before finding a simpler peace, is virtually a paradigm of the Sixties.
And, of course, the music, even the story, nowadays - despite its Broadway novelty, talk about having it both ways! - is also a lustrously nostalgic helter-skelter for middle-aged baby boomers.
Still, make no mistake, there is no middle aged spread to McAnuff's production, which is as taut and time-breaking as the day after tomorrow.
What started as a 10-minute filler on a Who album, went through concert, opera-house, ballet and movie versions, has now swept home to roost as a high-tech show-biz marvel, full of flight and flying, with John Arnone's chic, diagrammatic settings, Wendall K. Harrington's symbolized back-projections, banks of TV monitors, hand-held cameras, and a fantastic orchestration by Steve Margoshes that thrums and startles with the heart of its guitar beat.
Listen to the sensational virtuosity of the rock sound. Here is its ability to take a bare-bones story (cleverly fleshed out here by having three Tommys - at different ages - playing out his clinical saga in dramatic counterpoint) and give it a savagely emotional punch and plunge outside the cocktail-lounge range of traditional Broadway show music.
This is the musical breakthrough. And an irony. For a score once thought downscale rock, hanging round The Who's neck like a haunting albatross, has been transmogrified into Broadway's pinball wizard, opening a 25-year-old gateway to a potentially new world.
Using techniques often as old as rock concerts, McAnuff has staged the piece dazzlingly - helped everywhere by Wayne Cilento's resourceful choreography, which even makes a movement motif from the trademarked Daltry/Townshend air-leaps.
Although the performance is fundamentally a wonderful ensemble singing like angels while acting like cartoons, note must be taken of Marcia Mitzman as the Mother, Paul Kandel as the wicked and bibulous Uncle Ernie and, most of all, of Michael Cerveris' resonantly dazed and radiant Tommy.
Brilliant, bloody brilliant!
The Broadway musical has never been the same since rock-and-roll stole its audience and threw it into an identity crisis. For three decades, from the moment "Meet the Beatles" usurped the supremacy of such Broadway pop as "Hello, Dolly!," the commercial theater has desperately tried to win back the Young (without alienating their elders) by watering down rock music, simulating rock music and ripping off rock music. A result has been a few scattered hits over the years, typified by "Hair" and "Jesus Christ, Superstar," most of which have tamed the rock-and-roll revolution rather than spread it throughout Times Square.
"Tommy," the stunning new stage adaptation of the 1969 rock opera by the British group the Who, is at long last the authentic rock musical that has eluded Broadway for two generations. A collaboration of its original principal author, Pete Townshend, and the director, Des McAnuff, this show is not merely an entertainment juggernaut, riding at full tilt on the visual and musical highs of its legendary pinball iconography and irresistible tunes, but also a surprisingly moving resuscitation of the disturbing passions that made "Tommy" an emblem of its era. In the apocalyptic year of 1969, "Tommy" was the unwitting background music for the revelation of the My Lai massacre, the Chicago Seven trial, the Charles Manson murders. Those cataclysmic associations still reverberate within the piece, there to be tapped for the Who's generation, even as the show at the St. James is so theatrically fresh and emotionally raw that newcomers to "Tommy" will think it was born yesterday.
In a way, it was. Though the voices and pit band of this "Tommy" faithfully reproduce the 1969 double album, adding merely one song ("I Believe My Own Eyes"), a few snippets of dialogue and some extended passages of underscoring, the production bears no resemblance to the Who's own concert performances of the opera (which culminated in an appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1970) or to Ken Russell's pious, gag-infested 1975 film adaptation. Instead of merely performing the songs or exploiting them as cues for general riffs of dance and psychedelia, the evening's creators, who also include the choreographer Wayne Cilento and some extraordinary multi-media artists led by the brilliant set designer John Arnone, use their singing actors to flesh out the drama of "Tommy." Better still, they excavate the fable's meaning until finally the opera's revised conclusion spreads catharsis like wildfire through the cheering house.
Both the story and its point are as simple as "Peter Pan" (with which "Tommy" shares its London setting and some flying stunts by Foy). The show's eponymous hero is a boy who is stricken deaf, dumb and blind at the age of 4 after watching his father return from a World War II prisoners' camp to shoot his mother's lover. Tommy's only form of communication proves to be his latent wizardry at pinballs, a talent that soon turns him into a media sensation. As played by Michael Cerveris with the sleek white outfit, dark shades and narcissistic attitude of a rock star, the grown-up Tommy is nearly every modern child's revenge fantasy come true: the untouchable icon who gets the uncritical adulation from roaring crowds that his despised parents never gave him at home.
In this telling, Tommy is often played simultaneously by two child actors (representing him at ages 4 and 10) in addition to Mr. Cerveris. The isolated young Tommy's totemic, recurring cry of yearning -- "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me" -- flows repeatedly between inner child and grown man, giving piercing voice to the eternal childhood psychic aches of loneliness and lovelessness. It is this primal theme, expressed with devastating simplicity in Mr. Townshend's score and lyrics, that has made "Tommy" timeless, outlasting the Who itself (which disbanded in 1982). Yet it is the evil of the authority figures the hero must overcome -- a distant father (Jonathan Dokuchitz), a dismissive mother (Marcia Mitzman), a sexually abusive Uncle Ernie (Paul Kandel) and various fascistic thugs -- that also makes "Tommy" a poster-simple political statement reflecting the stark rage of the Vietnam era.
As staged by Mr. McAnuff, that anger is present but the story is kept firmly rooted in its own time, from the 40's to the early 60's. The slide projections that drive the production design at first recreate in black-and-white the London of the blitz, then spill into the vibrant Pop Art imagery of pinball machines, early Carnaby Street and Andy Warhol paintings before returning to black-and-white for televised crowd images that recall the early British rock explosion as witnessed on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Mr. Cilento's compact dances similarly advance from wartime jitterbugging to the 50's sock-hopping of early rock-and-roll movies to evocations of the mod antics of "A Hard Day's Night" and its imitators in the 60's.
But the highly sophisticated theatrical style of this "Tommy," which coalesces as a continuous wave of song, scenes, kaleidoscopic design and dance, owes everything to musical-theater innovations unknown until the mid-1970's. Mr. McAnuff, whose past Broadway works include the relatively stodgy "Big River" and "A Walk in the Woods," shrewdly turns to examples set by such directors as Harold Prince, Michael Bennett and Robert Wilson. Here and there are echoes of the mock-documentary superstar sequences of "Evita" and "Dreamgirls," in which abstract scaffolding and bridges suggest a show-biz firmament and a surging mob. As in those cinematic Prince and Bennett shows, the entire company becomes an undulating organism that defines the stage space and is always on the fly.
From Mr. Wilson, whose theater experiments have sometimes involved autistic boys eerily resembling the fictive Tommy, Mr. McAnuff and his designers take the notion of threading a few repeated images abstractly through the action: floating chairs, mirrors, the Union Jack, airplane propellers and disembodied Man Ray eyes, not to mention doors and windows reminiscent of 60's rock-album cover art and the hallucinogenic mythology such art canonized. (Sometimes the new incidental scoring takes some hints from Mr. Wilson's musical collaborator, Philip Glass.) These dreamy visual touchstones are constantly reshuffled and distorted throughout "Tommy" for subliminal effect, reaching their apotheosis in an inevitable (and superbly executed) set piece in which the entire theater becomes a gyrating pinball machine celebrating the rebellious hero's "amazing journey" to new-found freedom.
Even in that blowout sequence, "Tommy" eschews the heavy visual spectacle of recent West End rock operas (and Broadway musicals) to keep its effects lithe and to the point. Often the most evocative sequences are spare and intimate: a candlelit Christmas dinner haunted by the ghosts of family horrors past, an abandoned urban lot in which the Acid Queen (Cheryl Freeman, paying persuasive vocal homage to Tina Turner) is more a feral junkie than a phantasmagoric gypsy. Dominating the stage instead of being usurped by hardware, the performers can shine as well, from the dazzling Mr. Cerveris, who grows from melancholy youth to strutting pop belter, to Ms. Mitzman's powerfully sung mother, Mr. Kandel's sinister Uncle Ernie and the tireless ensemble, its youngest members included.
When the time comes for the entire company to advance on the audience to sing the soaring final incantation -- "Listening to you I get the music/ Gazing at you I get the heat" -- "Tommy" has done what rock-and-roll can do but almost never does in the theater: reawaken an audience's adolescent feelings of rebellion and allow them open-throated release. But reflecting the passage of time and Mr. Townshend's own mature age of 47, this version takes a brave step further, concluding with a powerful tableau of reconciliation that lifts an audience of the 1990's out of its seats.
"Hope I die before I get old," sang the Who in "My Generation," its early hit single. A quarter-century or so later, Mr. Townshend hasn't got old so much as grown up, into a deeper view of humanity unthinkable in the late 1960's. Far from being another of Broadway's excursions into nostalgia, "Tommy" is the first musical in years to feel completely alive in its own moment. No wonder that for two hours it makes the world seem young.
"The Who's Tommy" is the latest musical work to be dusted off and receive a rousing '90s tuneup. Like last year's "Guys and Dolls" and "Crazy for You," it's going to pack them in for a long time. Unlike those shows, however, this one should also tap the vast younger audience Broadway lusts after, the one that won't care a fig about the naysayers the musical undoubtedly will spawn.
Seeing -- not to mention hearing, feeling and touching -- is believing: "Tommy" is the best rock 'n' roll show -- sorry, opera -- ever produced on Broadway.
It's also a triumph of stagecraft, a show whose only peers in delivering one eye-popping scene after another are "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon."
When, for one wisely fleeting moment, designer John Arnone transforms the entire St. James Theater into a spinning, flashing, ringing pinball machine, you know the wizards offstage have every bit as much prowess as the one on.
Key among them are director Des McAnuff and "Tommy's" primary librettist, Pete Townshend. McAnuff's roots are in rock 'n' roll theater ("Death of von Richtofen as Witnessed from the Earth").
He brought Townshend to the La Jolla Playhouse last year to collaborate on a refined book for the 1969 Who rocker about a boy, struck deaf, dumb and blind when his war-hero father is murdered by his mother's lover, who goes on to become a pinball prodigy.
Townshend and McAnuff have changed key elements, updating the story to World War II and having the father kill the lover. Significantly, Tommy's rise to fame has been desanctified.
The show opens with a long expository sequence in which Captain Walker (Jonathan Dokuchitz) leaves his pregnant wife (Marcia Mitzman) for the war, is held prisoner and given up for dead and finally returns to walk in on 4-year-old Tommy (Crysta Macalush), mother and lover (Lee Morgan).
During the ensuing fight, Tommy stares into a mirror as his senses desert him and lighting designer Chris Parry drenches the whole thing in blood red.
The exposition is made vivid by Wendall K. Harrington's kinetic projections and Batwin+Robin's videos, as a wartime dance unfolds into a paratroopers' ballet, just the first of Wayne Cilento'smuscular, sexy, frequently funny dances.
A lot of gimmickry serves a story that critics dubbed pretentious 24 years ago, but which is simply banal: Finally regaining his senses, Tommy (Michael Cerveris) renounces his position.
There are plenty of other high points, though none as eerily effective as when Tommy is first revealed as the "Pinball Wizard."
The mop-topped Cerveris imbues Tommy with considerably more personality than the score ever really allows. There are also particularly effective performances from Mitzman as the mother, Paul Kandel as Tommy's abusive, alcoholic Uncle Ernie and Cheryl Freeman as a Gypsy healer.
Special tribute must be paid to Steve Canyon Kennedy, whose sound design is flawless; this is a loud show delivered mercifully distortion-free.
"Tommy" is a hugely entertaining show. Dwell too much on the plot or the message, and it all dissolves in an instant. But for sheer rock 'n' roll fun, it's hard to beat.