‘The Who’s Tommy’ Assessment: Going Full Tilt

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By Stacy Connor

That its plot is senseless just isn’t actually the issue with “Tommy.” When it first appeared as an idea album, in 1969, it was, in any case, billed as a rock opera. And let’s face it, for those who’ve ever paid consideration to its story unstoned, you’re going to have some questions, simply as you would possibly with “The Magic Flute.”

Nor are you able to complain concerning the rock a part of the billing; there’s some fairly magic guitaring happening, and a few righteously harmonized vocals.

Translations to movie and the stage have provided further pleasures. The 1975 film gave us Tina Turner in high type — sufficient mentioned. The unique 1993 Broadway musical, with its flying Tommy and galloping pinball machine, was a visible groundbreaker, warmed by glorious performances. Even the colder, coarser revival that opened Thursday on the Nederlander Theater, lengthy since rebranded as “The Who’s Tommy,” presents the joy of huge, poppy belting.

Who’s Tommy certainly! And whose? Regardless of all its incarnations, the expertise that makes essentially the most highly effective use of Pete Townshend’s infernally catchy songs stays the one which takes place within the ear’s creativeness. Largely free of the burdens of literalness, the album didn’t have to make sense to make historical past.

Right now, although, until you’re a die-hard fan who thrills mechanically to each lick and lyric, it’s your decision one thing that calls itself musical theater to supply greater than a full-tilt assault on the senses. This manufacturing — directed, like the unique, by Des McAnuff — gained’t present that, being much less excited about attempting to place throughout the story (by McAnuff and Townshend) than in obscuring it with relentless noise and banal imagery.

To be truthful, the story, set throughout World Struggle II and the 20 years after, most likely advantages from some obscurity. We first meet Tommy Walker as a cheerful 4-year-old (Olive Ross-Kline, alternating with Cecilia Ann Popp). However when his father (Adam Jacobs) returns after a number of years in a prisoner-of-war camp, and kills the lover that his mom (Alison Luff) has acquired within the meantime, the boy is traumatized. Witnessing the taking pictures, he immediately loses his potential to listen to, converse and see, leaving him a shell of a kid, defenseless towards his dad and mom’ rages and his pedophile uncle (John Ambrosino). It additionally makes him, for a musical, a weird protagonist, spending most of his time staring into a big, symbolic mirror.

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To resolve that downside, and show his dissociation, the authors cut up Tommy into three coexisting incarnations. The ten-year-old model (Quinten Kusheba, alternating with Reese Levine) is, if potential, much more unresponsive, baffling many docs who apparently failed their psychiatry programs. In search of a treatment, his anguished father brings him, as one does, to a prostitute and heroin addict referred to as the Acid Queen (Christina Sajous). Solely after she guarantees “to tear his soul aside” does dad assume higher of it.

But when Tommy stays what the well-known (and now problematic) lyric calls “that deaf, dumb and blind child,” he isn’t with out feeling. In his teenagers, his potential to answer vibrations turns him right into a “pinball wizard” and in some way thus a star. Rising from the damaged mirror of his childhood, he turns into, in Ali Louis Bourzgui’s cool portrayal, a logo of the potential for reintegration, restoration and rock stardom: a younger grownup with a cult.

This parade of wierd plot factors and narrational perplexities passes fairly swiftly — maybe, at little greater than two hours, too swiftly, because the story is tough to comply with and tougher to swallow.

That’s why I discover it extra worthwhile to consider “Tommy” not as a sequence of occasions however as a dream you might be watching from a perch inside somebody’s amygdala. That individual would after all be Townshend, who grew up in London at 22 Whitehall Gardens — not removed from Tommy’s dwelling at 22 Heathfield Gardens. He just lately instructed The Instances that “Tommy” might be “a memoir during which I work out my childhood stuff.” Although his abuse, he mentioned, was by the hands of his “terrible” grandmother, not his “neglectful and careless” dad and mom, he evidently suffered from sufficient trauma and exploitation to make himself a mannequin for Tommy.

The earworm tunes and peculiar lyrics by which the grownup Townshend processed that trauma make the present shifting when provided on the proper scale. Ambivalence is the keynote. There’s no excusing the injury performed to him by others, and but, as with Tommy, that injury can also be what supplied him together with his present. (“Illness will certainly take the thoughts/The place minds can’t normally go,” the boy sings within the aptly named “Superb Journey.”) Then again, Townshend, or no less than his avatar right here, finds that “freedom lies in normality.” That is the alternative of rock’s countercultural pose; in the long run, the one to whom Tommy sings the anthem “Listening to You” just isn’t a crowd of admirers however his mom.

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McAnuff’s manufacturing doesn’t site visitors in such subtleties. All the heat, emotional finish of the present’s spectrum has been lopped off, leaving solely black, white and garish yellow. Even the string quartet that was a part of the 1993 orchestration has been eradicated. Additionally lacking from that model: the flying that was so efficient and poetic as a illustration of Tommy’s inside aspirations.

As a substitute, the highest staging be aware is supplied by Peter Nigrini’s projections, together with stay video, that tumble throughout David Korins’s skeletal, shape-shifting set. (The pinball machine is so spindly it appears as whether it is product of Okay’nex.) The lighting by Amanda Zieve is intentionally chilly and harsh.

Neither is there any try at complexity throughout the manufacturing’s strict parameters. The imagery is a catalog of clichés. Tommy’s safety guards put on SS-style greatcoats by Sarafina Bush. A projection of a large field of Lux cleaning soap flakes looms over the in any other case unidentifiable spot the place Mrs. Walker is doing laundry. Racks of clearly faux check tubes are relayed hand-to-hand when Tommy is being examined by docs. I’ll grant that the Acid Queen’s spinning wheel is an surprising gesture, but it surely’s bewildering. Is she a Destiny?

If that’s the case, her message to her fellow characters maybe ought to be: You’ll be overwhelmed. Nonetheless loudly and properly the performers sing, nonetheless frenziedly they dance Lorin Latarro’s dystopian choreography, they not often floor from the manufacturing’s flooding of the senses with any expressiveness intact.

Nonetheless, lovers of rock live shows with tons of results could but like “Tommy,” even when it appears self-defeating to parrot arena-show aesthetics in a musical that implicitly criticizes arenas as websites of inconsiderate idolization and fascistic violence. What I missed in the midst of all that overemphasis was some sense of humanity, a few violins balancing the guitars, a contact of actual Townshend. As a result of when the whole lot’s an impact, irrespective of how sensible, none might be particular.

The Who’s Tommy
On the Nederlander Theater, Manhattan; tommythemusical.com. Working time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

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