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Roadshow _Tommy_ review

Review of the road show of _The Who's Tommy_, as seen in Austin, Texas,
April 21-24, 1994.

>From the opening chord, those familiar with the music will find any
reservations they may have had about the rock aspect of the show
instantly laid to rest.  Even those unfamiliar with the music or The Who
will find themselves gripped with the same sense of total fascination as
a Who concert provides, at volume that, while not in the same league as
an actual Who concert, certainly outstrips that of normal theatrical
productions and places at least one foot in the rock arena.  While,
reportedly, that first chord has been enough in itself to send some
unprepared souls stumbling or marching briskly for the exits, it serves
as nothing less than a call to the barricades for rock veterans and a
wakeup alarm for any blase timepassers who might have wandered in.  

Director Des McAnuff and the designers have done a brilliant job of
telling the story of Tommy's parents' meeting (cognoscenti will
appreciate the touch of rotating mirrored balls which bathe them and
other dancers in whirling sparks of light), marriage, and separation in
wartime Britain, and his father's capture and later liberation by enemy
soldiers within the space of the "Overture".  Stage set pieces change,
backdrops fly in and out, and actors move on and off in a choreography
of images unprecedented in speed but retaining the full impact of the
story's opening.  This speed is, in fact, a characteristic of the entire
show; with approximately two exceptions, there is no silence nor even
time for applause, except for the act ends, in the entire 2+ hours of
the show.  Musical climaxes shake the emotions as well as the auditorium
seats, only to fall to near-whisper levels and contine the story without
interruption.  This generates an enormous tension in the audience, as
they are left with no outlet to show their appreciation until the act
curtains.  It is a measure of the power of the show that in the one
place where there _is_ a pause of about 10 seconds (after the stunningly
staged and slightly rearranged highlight of "Sensation" during the first
act), during which the audience _could_ applaud, more often than not it
remains in fascinated silence until once again the music resumes, not to
let up until the act ends.

Let it be noted that the road show reproduces the Broadway show
extremely well, although not completely.  Most missed/noticeable changes
from Broadway performances are the flying (missing completely), a
stage-level trapdoor (simulated in a roll-on pedestal), and a somewhat
modified but still very effective ultra-pinball machine.  The vast
majority of props, sets, and backdrops recreate the impressions of the
Broadway production quite satisfactorily.  The road's Tommy, Steve
Isaacs (age 24), is a more prickly, rebellious Tommy than Broadway's
Michael Cerveris (age 33); Isaacs draws on the energy and occasionally
the anger of youth, and seems slightly perfunctory in his familial
reconciliations, where Cerveris constantly invites the audience into his
character, making them his partner in his onstage struggles, and
convincingly and satisfyingly throws his arms around cousins, uncles and
parents at the end.

Backstage projections set the mood or place of the scenes, and the
designers have emphasized simple objects stylized into icons in the
projections; the bombs falling on Britain, the doors, windows, and
chairs of simple household life, even many of the props on stage appear
as the simplified essential outlines appropriate to a myth in the
telling.  Moving beyond body mikes, wireless "head mikes" give the
actors' voices the power to sound over a full-tilt rock orchestra.

An innovation in this production is the introduction of three Tommies:
his four-year-old self, who witnesses the murder (comfortably justified,
and explicitly considered in the play, as opposed to both the album's
and the movie's skirting of the cleanup details) of the lover (returning
to the album's plot); a ten-year-old self, who is the first
pinball-playing wonder; and a 20-year-old self, who serves as narrator,
the guru of "Amazing Journey" (replacing the golden-bearded avatar of
the album and the father-figure of the movie), and later as the central
character himself.  These three selves interact directly throughout the
play to great effect, touching off numerous and deep associations on
life's passages for the audience.

An initial impression, which I still hold after consideration, is that
the show fails to solve the problems of the songs "Eyesight to the
Blind" and "Acid Queen."  While in both the original (which is cited in
interviews and publicity releases as the reference for the show) and in
the movie, these songs each portray a separate event Tommy experiences
in his parents' (or guardians') unsuccessful attempts at finding cures,
in the show "Eyesight to the Blind" is sung by a nattily-dressed pimp
and is, in fact, _about_ the Acid Queen, thus combining the two songs
into a single stage sequence.  This in itself is unexceptionable, and in
fact can been seen as a positive step to trim the plotline, but the
concept stumbles when, at the end of "Acid Queen," Tommy's father
changes his mind and snatches him away from the Gypsy just as she and
the boy are about to disappear offstage for a round of her
ministrations.  Thus we have spent two (well-executed) songs and
substantial time watching events which end up having no effect on Tommy
whatsoever (however much we may enjoy the artistry of their
presentation).  The problem seems insoluble without either portraying or
implying a 10-year-old Tommy in a drug-induced haze, however, and the
producers have shrunk from including that particular shock in their
show, choosing instead to leave a faint taste of wasted time in the air
at the end of "Acid Queen."  The show charges on, however, with the
climactic "Pinball Wizard", which fills the stage and auditorium with
sound, light, and color, revealing for the first time the grown-up Tommy
in pinball-playing splendor, and ringing down the curtain to allow the
audience its time to applaud, reflect, and exult.

The second act opens with a punchy but abbreviated "Underture", showing
Tommy playing pinball for a group of neighborhood layabouts (the
"Louts," of whom more later), which breaks into a victory chant of "Oi
oi oi oi oi oi oi oi"* as they carry him home.  This is followed in
short order by "Go to the Mirror."  This pivotal song, which I consider
a climax of the work, is enhanced with special state-of the art
"medical" props, reminiscent of the "dentist's chair" in which Roger
appeared during this song in the movie.  Unfortunately, the actor
singing the song is only adequate in voice and acting, when this song
needs extraordinary power in both (and receives it on Broadway), and is
a bit too young to be fully credible.  The song is redeemed, however, by
the staging of the "Listening to You" theme (which was sadly missed in
the movie version), in which the older Tommy is taken to the mirror at
downstage center and confronts his two younger selves there, with the
trio of their voices combining beautifully and their focus on each other
speaking volumes of the relationship between the older self one
envisions when young and the younger self one remembers later in life.

Pete's new song, "I Believe My Own Eyes" follows after "Tommy Can You
Hear Me?".  John has been quoted as saying he couldn't imagine The Who
performing it, and indeed it is reminiscent of "Was There Love" on "Iron
Man," with occasionally unpredictable melodies and key changes, a
thinking man's ballad rather than a power chord exercise.  Structurally,
it serves to flesh out the characters of the parents; in it they agree
that they've done all everything possible concerning Tommy, and that it
would be better to "believe their own eyes," which tell them that no
progress is being made -- that it would be better to institutionalize
him and carry on with their own lives.  (This song sets up a later punch
line when his father states to an interviewer that they "never gave up
on him -- not once.")

The act continues with "Smash the Mirror" and "I'm Free", but then
swings away from the canon in giving Tommy his own "Pinball Wizard" to
sing in a reprise.  The lyrics acquire a new urgency and irony when sung
by Tommy ("he ain't got no distractions..."; "How do you think he does
it?...")  Starting with a single actor and a bare stage, the song erupts
like a rocket, unleashing the art of technical stagecraft and showing
him in full-blown stadium-rock mode, with smoke machines, Klieg lights,
roaring crowds, and a pinball machine which I will not attempt to
describe but which must be seen to be appreciated.  More than anything
else in the show, this song presents a view and a feel of what a Who
concert might have been like from the performer's point of view; as such
it is yet another plank in the bridge Pete has built throughout his
career between himself and his audience, presenting us to ourselves in
the mirror of his stage performances.  You can practically feel your
sweaty clothes clinging to you after this one.

"Sally Simpson" shows courage on everyone's part; the police (who are
the Louts, given security jobs) pummel her after Tommy pushes her off
the stage, and as he cradles her, Cincinnati is an inescapable echo, and
one which could have been avoided with different staging.  Full marks
here for doing it the hard way.

The major adaptation in the Tommy myth is to end it with a comforting
normality (a hint in "I'm Free" occurs with the new line, "I'm free/And
freedom's found in normality.")  The end of the show has been
adapted/updated to be a reconciliation between Tommy and his family;
where the album never addressed the issue and the movie neatly disposed
of it with his parent's deaths, the play neatly wraps things up after
Tommy's rejection ("We're Not Going to Take It").  His return to the
mirror, beginning the "Listening To You" reprise that finishes the show,
continues with his realization of his own self and his own worth, and
ends in forgiveness and reconciliation with the family he had rejected
since his awakening in "Smash the Mirror."  The play seems to say that
the result of the quest for enlightenment is simply to be who one is,
and that part of that enlightenment is accepting one's family and home
in turn for what they are.  It has become in a sense a meditation about
the normal family life Pete has been quoted as wishing he could have;
and if we feel betrayed that he wishes for a shedding of the star mantle
he worked so hard to achieve, is this very different from the "We're Not
Gonna Take It" response Tommy receives from his followers when he does
the same thing?


Comments welcome.

*Does anyone have anything to add re: the "Strength Through Oi" movement
in England a few years ago?  I know nothing about it except a vague
impression of neo-Nazi skinhead? teenagers.