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THEATER REVIEW : Tamed, '90s 'Tommy' Flashily Arrives on Broadway

April 23, 1993|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — The audience was on its feet, whooping and cheering at the end of "Tommy," the first official Pete Townshend-approved staging of the Who's landmark 1969 rock opera.

The gonzo-tech $6 million production, at the St. James Theater after a tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse, can hold up its head among the flashiest of the pseudo-serious British mega-spectacles. It's emotionally conventional. It's technically extravagant and very slick, and it recycles material that everybody knows. It should be non-threatening to tourists of many ages, and is so likely to succeed that its producers already are said to be planning the tour.

And I've seldom felt so alone in a theater in my life.

This is depressing. For years, many of us have waited for a real rock artist to liberate Broadway from the second-raters. What we didn't expect is that Broadway would tame him instead.

Think "Beatlemania" meets "Godspell" and "Grease" in a '90s medical drama. "Tommy," which blew open the pop form as perhaps the first rock "story," is still the tale of a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" who rose and fell as a celebrity-savior and played a mean pinball. And it still has that nonstop, hard-driving music, performed relatively faithfully.

But Townshend and La Jolla director Des McAnuff have flattened the evocatively ambiguous song cycle into a doggedly literal, very straight, square and joyless psychodrama about a traumatized child in a dysfunctional London family. They've connected the dots and filled in the blanks for easy mass-market comprehension, and, in the process, drained the mystery from this heretofore edgy, mythic tale of childhood Angst and messianic disillusionment.

It has three Tommys of different ages. All wear white and the grown-up one (Michael Cerveris in a squeaky clean, icky-sweet mop-top wig) sometimes flies.

There also are lots and lots of elaborate multimedia projections, always efficient, sometimes inventive and, in the case of an extended prologue about the courtship of Tommy's parents, really quite beautiful.

While the original "Tommy" started in World War I, this one spans a more manageable 1940-1963. And, though we think of the concept album as one of the pop-culture icons of the '60s, Broadway sees a more recent combination of sensibilities.

The cinematic projections and banks of TV monitors are advanced versions of those multimedia shows that went nowhere in the '70s, except to help glimpse teeny performers at rock concerts in huge venues. The spectacle is strictly a phenomenon from the '80s mega-musicals.

Then there is a party's-over feeling, definitely very '90s-preachy about relationships, obsessed with dysfunctionals, blame and disease. In scene after scene, Tommy's parents (Marcia Mitzman, Jonathan Dokuchitz) are in demonic doctors' offices, looking for the equivalent of Lorenzo's oil.

As everyone must know by now, this is the story of a child (Crysta Macalush at the preview I saw) who watches his soldier-father kill his mother's lover and goes numb.

As a catatonic boy (Buddy Smith), he is sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie (Paul Kandel, with a deft, fairly benign music-hall wickedness) and tormented by Cousin Kevin (Anthony Barrile, with the edge so much else lacks) and dragged to a pinball hall where Wayne Cilento's conventional jitterbug choreography makes the delinquents about as scary as the kids in "Happy Days."

There is nothing sensual, nothing erotic in this production, whose '90s sensibility is typified by the Gypsy, the "acid queen" hired by Tommy's father to try to wake the boy through his body. While we aren't asking for an "acid queen" like Tina Turner from Ken Russell's completely outrageous 1975 movie version, does Cheryl Freeman have to play her as a depressed, exploited junkie?

All the major players are fine, though Cerveris is certainly no Roger Daltrey and it's hard to distinguish voice quality in such amplification. Purists may be disturbed by the introduction of synthesizers, but otherwise the orchestrations seem relatively respectful of the original.

The two-hour show moves briskly and smoothly. Since the album wasn't written to dramatize individual characters in a linear narrative, however, the music comes off as a sort of amplified sound curtain that resists efforts to break the monotony into separate moods and changes of pace.

For the record, the production is bigger but not radically different from the La Jolla version. The gooey up-with-people, smile-button scene (in which the healed Tommy forgives the family and everyone looks at the audience and sings "In you I see the glory . . .") is still in, but no longer the finale.

Tommy has sent away the stereotypical media and the fawning fans by exclaiming, "The point is not for you to be more like me. The point is that I am finally more like you."

And we think of Townshend, who walks around Broadway these days looking as if he really enjoys his new job. He is said to have a few other musical projects in mind.

Maybe, now that "Tommy" is out of his system, and running probably forever, we'll see what kind of theatrical composer he can be.

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