“The Who’s Tommy” Performs the Outdated Pinball

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By Calvin S. Nelson

It’s been a protracted, wild journey since 1969, when the opening chords of Pete Townshend’s “Tommy,” written with and recorded by the Who, first blasted onstage. The band toured the genre-defying album—a seeker’s rock opera through which a “deaf, dumb, and blind child” discovers a messianic reward for pinball—for a number of years. All through the following decade, different artists took a crack on the Who’s materials: there was a ballet, a symphony, and Ken Russell’s nutterbutter psychedelic movie, in 1975. Then, about fifteen years after the Who had roughly put “Tommy” away, the director Des McAnuff satisfied Townshend that, collectively, they may flip it right into a musical. The outcome smashed onto Broadway in 1993. An entire bunch of oldsters received Tony Awards; definitely, everyone made cash. So, thirty years later, right here we’re once more.

Or, fairly, we’re making an attempt to be there once more. Which “there”—the seventies? the nineties?—could rely in your age. It would additionally rely on whether or not your “Tommy” preferences lean towards the rawness of the band’s concert events (which the lead singer, Roger Daltrey, as soon as referred to fondly as a “bum observe and a bead of sweat”) or towards Broadway’s shiny, show-and-also-tell strategy. Is it a good suggestion to behave out the lyrics of a tune a couple of mystical drugged-out prostitute? Responses will range. Both method, now on the Nederlander, nostalgia is being delivered by brute drive. Earlier than this outing, I had by no means seen “The Who’s Tommy” in a theatre, however once I heard the overture’s guitar chords, hissing with cymbals, I felt a shudder of false reminiscence. The sound designer Gareth Owen has added a recording of a roaring crowd to the efficiency’s first few moments, and I discovered myself remembering stadiums that I’d by no means been in. However, yeesh, then the present will get going.

It begins with a protracted, breathless introduction, a few of it enacted in barely goofy mime, because the rock instrumental performs: through the Second World Conflict, a welder (Alison Luff) and a Royal Air Drive officer, Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs), meet, marry, and lose one another, when he’s despatched to Europe and shot down by the Germans throughout a parachute soar. McAnuff, directing his personal present as soon as once more, three many years after the unique, shows his most interesting second of stagecraft right here: the projection design (by Peter Nigrini) reveals us the within of a bomber bay, and a line of paratroopers deploys by dropping, one after the other, by means of the ground. Again in England, Tommy is born, and the Air Drive mistakenly notifies Mrs. Walker that the captain is rarely coming again. When he does finally make it dwelling, he breezes in, shoots his spouse’s new lover—don’t trouble mourning him; he instantly fades again into the refrain—and traumatizes his four-year-old son. (I noticed Cecilia Ann Popp because the youngest Tommy.) Tommy’s dad and mom insist to him, “You didn’t hear it / you didn’t see it,” inducing within the baby a complete psychic block—he can now not sense the world.

The world then preys on the locked-in boy. Tommy’s uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) molests him when he’s ten years previous (I noticed Quinten Kusheba, sporting one of many wig and hair designer Charles LaPointe’s silliest curly wigs); his cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte) flings him right into a rubbish can. Tommy’s older self, performed by an oddly muted Ali Louis Bourzgui in a white turtleneck, croons superbly to his ten-year-old physique. “See me, really feel me, contact me, heal me,” he calls by means of a one-way mirror, like a Phantom of the Opera who has studied est. Kevin does, at the least, put wee Tommy in entrance of a pinball machine, and the child discovers his expertise. The ensemble lifts his little legs so he appears to fly, and the primary act ends with one thing that ought to have occurred from the beginning: the again scrim flies out, and we see what seems to be the home band, shredding like mad. Vitality lastly fizzes and pops; voices which have been restrained are unleashed. We’re given a break from all of the vibe-killing black-and-white projections because the lighting designer Amanda Zieve triggers bizarre spherical kaleidoscopic lights, which transfer and shimmer like warp cores.

Right here, as elsewhere, the set designer David Korins has chosen abstraction for the important thing prop, the pinball machine, which is performed by a black folding desk with a glowing rectangle sticking up on one finish. If you’re, say, from a era unfamiliar with pinball, you received’t get a lot of a way of these Carnaby Road whistles and bells. Possibly previous folks used to play with tables, the younger will assume. They made do with so little.

And this struck me as the issue all through. The manufacturing, extra a reanimation than a revival, appears to assume that there’s no level in exhibiting us the pinball machine since absolutely we bear in mind it. All of the theatregoer will want is the reference, proper? Nostalgia is a key factor of many reveals—that’s principally the entire level of Broadway now—nevertheless it’s ruinous if the makers are seeing a previous that we aren’t enthralled by, too.

McAnuff created this manufacturing final 12 months on the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, and selected new collaborators fairly than the 1993 crew: Korins as a substitute of John Arnone; the choreographer Lorin Latarro as a substitute of Wayne Cilento. However McAnuff appears to have requested them to stylistically level to these earlier artists’ work so ceaselessly that I felt I used to be generally seeing constraint fairly than contemporary creativity. Korins makes use of an revolutionary grid of flying neon lights, however beneath that the core geometries are the identical. And plenty of components are introduced like talismans, to the purpose of bafflement. Did Michael Cerveris, as Tommy, put on a yellow jacket in 1993? Then the costume designer Sarafina Bush should put one on Bourzgui now. Even Christina Sajous, enjoying the psychonautic intercourse employee, does a Tina Turner impression—most likely as a result of her character, the Acid Queen, was performed by Turner within the film.

Most essential, the present’s already weird storytelling suffers; maybe McAnuff assumes that we’ll be as acquainted with the plot as he’s. (He does lower a quantity, and it makes issues much less clear.) The necessity to pack a gajillion occasions into tiny areas discombobulates the tip of the present. Right here’s what occurs in the middle of 4 swift scenes: grownup Tommy’s senses are cured when his mom smashes a mirror; he attains immense pinball movie star (certain!), using his cousin as the top of his personal pseudo-Brown Shirts; he abandons that guru-like standing as a result of a fan will get harm; and he joyfully leaves the Large Life for dwelling, the place he’s welcomed by his sexual-abuser uncle, his killer dad, his mirror-smashing mum, and his jackbooted cousin. (There’s additionally a projection that reads “IN THE FUTURE,” which, since we begin within the nineteen-forties, would imply that Tommy’s household is immortal.)

Nobody explains why Tommy’s followers generally put on silver helmets; in case you by no means realized from one of many story’s earlier incarnations that Tommy encourages his acolytes to muffle their very own senses, this manufacturing received’t let on. Hassled by his followers’ adulation, Tommy instructs his followers to go discover reality for themselves. Yeah! I assumed. Don’t fall in line! However instantly thereafter, for the finale, everybody within the forged will get into . . . a line . . . and sings the ecstatic “Listening to You”: “Proper behind you, I see the thousands and thousands / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.” I get opinions? Tommy, did they hear you? Did you hear your self?

Someplace within the transition from live performance to musical, Townshend and McAnuff have misplaced the rock opera’s authentic grip on metaphor. A double album doesn’t want logic: nobody cares about floor sense when the music is shifting your blood round with sheer noise and rhythm; every part can imply something. However McAnuff and Townshend’s dramatization insists we’re watching a narrative that does make sense, after which refuses to create that sense. I saved returning to 1 query: Who’s Tommy? He’s extra an abstraction than a personality, actually. Townshend as soon as wrote that the identify sublimed out of Britishness itself—it’s been slang for an English soldier because the eighteenth century—but in addition out of his personal religious craving. It accommodates the meditative syllable “om,” and, for a lot of, the concept of a kid drifting with out senses will remind us of our shared, unawakened selfhood. We’re all, Townshend’s songs indicate, dwelling in that sort of dissociated phantasm. What drive will assist us acknowledge the true? “Tommy” the album desires us to have our personal concepts about this, and I’ve dreamed a number of within the hours I’ve spent listening to it. The music remains to be ceaselessly lovely: it requested me to look inside, and to look with out. Nevertheless it definitely by no means informed me to look again. ♦

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