KPBS AIRDATE: August 31 1994 >
MUSIC… . ‘SEE ME, FEEL ME’)
Tommy is back. And he demands to be seen, felt, touched and experienced. The Who’ Tommy,” written in 1969 and newly reborn at the La Jolla Playhouse two years ago, has been transported back to the place of its birth. San Diego is another brief stop on an 18-month national tour, after the electrifying production wowed them on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards. For “Tommy,” it’s a homecoming.
And for the San Diego audience, it’s a double treat.
First, it’s kind of exciting to see something that started here go on to much greater glory. Even though, with Pete Townshend heavily involved in the production, it had a guaranteed life after La Jolla.
But second, the show is even better than before. And when it began, it was one of the most mind-boggling musicals to hit the stage in a long time.
When La Jolla Playhouse director Des McAnuff collaborated with Townshend on the first Who-approved stage version, the first act was dazzling and the second was murky. I personally complained that the production had taken all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll out of the original, which was what the whole thing was supposed to be about to begin with.
Well, I’m happy to report that all my concerns have been obliterated. The rewrites, tinkering, fixing and revisions the piece went through before Broadway are marvelously recreated for the road show. We don’t miss much — only the ho-hum flying of Tommy, and the one most incredible, breath-taking special effect I’d ever seen — the onstage parachute jump.
But we get a lot that’s new and so much better: tremendously pumped-up choreography — a whirlwind spin through all the dance and clothing crazes from the forties to the sixties. Pumped up volume in the pit, too. Now it really sounds like a rock musical, though the acoustics in Symphony Hall left a great deal to be desired. The music sounded superb, but you couldn’t make out the lyrics. Review your liner notes before you go…. What surprised and delighted me: not only has the rock n’n roll returned to the sound, but the sex and drugs are back a bit, too.
After Tommy watches his father kill his mother’s lover, he withdraws into himself, becoming deaf, dumb and blind. His parents take him to all sorts of healers, including the Acid Queen, who’s once again, as she should be, much more than just a gypsy. He is subjected to physical abuse by his cousin and sexual abuse by his Uncle. All these events are, aptly, more menacing in this revision.
Then Tommy becomes a pinball wizard and a leader of men, miraculously regains his faculties and then his sanity, after disillusionment with media mania and crowd adoration.
(MUSIC… “I’m Free”)
What this new Tommy learns is that “freedom lies here in normality.” Those lyrics aren’t in the original. And they change the whole piece. But they also make the revised ending more understandable, when Tommy reconciles with his dysfunctional family.
The whole second act is vastly improved. The story line is clarified, and we get fresh insights on the piece as a direct reflection of Townshend’s life; the guru/ rock star mentality, the religious fervor. Then, the ultimate realization: that there is no guru, that you yourself have the message.
The medium here is the message, too. The techno-wizardry is so spectacular you’re just plain nuts if you miss seeing it. And it’s a spectacle for everyone: both aging rockers and the MTV generation, with nonstop visual imagery and movement complementing a score that still sounds fresh and terrific. It’s a feast for all the senses. The orchestrations and the singing are sensational. The direction, the video projections, the costumes, the dancing, the special effects — all stunning. MTV-VJ Steve Isaacs isn’t as agile and athletic a Tommy as Michael Cerveris was. But he looks great and his voice is thrilling.
All that and much more that’s emotionally engaging in this incarnation of the play. At its inception, it was exciting but not involving. This time, there’s much more to hang onto than just spectacle. We get the music. And we get the heat.
MUSIC…. “Listening to You…..”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.