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New Take on 'Tommy' : An award-winning version of The Who's rock opera, reincarnated as a touring musical, arrives Wednesday.

July 08, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

UNIVERSAL CITY — Pete Townshend will tell you that he's mellowed. He'll say that much of the disgust tossed at his parents' generation by him and his '60s peers--this is the man, after all, who wrote the era's definitive rebel ballad, "My Generation"--was simply wrong and misguided. He'll even admit that he rather likes Broadway.

But among the many demands that the Broadway-ization of his (and The Who's) creation, "Tommy," has made on him is the press conference. Today, instead of trashing guitars and tossing them out hotel windows, Townshend pounces on press conferences.

"Oh, I know they're all a part of this venture," he says by telephone from his New York hotel room, "but I really, really hate them. I'm sure they're satisfying for those who put them on, but they're an incredibly brutal way to deal with the stuff of 'Tommy.' "

The "venture" of "Tommy"--first a rock opera album by The Who, then a London Symphony Orchestra recording, then a Ken Russell movie, then a live concert by The Who with guest stars, then a musical fashioned by Townshend and director Des McAnuff--has taken a new turn.

Welcome to "Tommy" the touring musical, arriving Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre. It marks a kind of return. The epic tale of a boy named Tommy--struck deaf, dumb and blind as his family splits apart, only to become a superstar player at the pinball machine--was last performed at the amphitheater in 1989. That concert version with The Who (Townshend with Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle) and guests Elton John, Patti LaBelle, Phil Collins, Steve Winwood and Billy Idol), prompted Townshend to think of "Tommy" for the stage.

"I'm very comfortable with the touring world," the guitarist-composer says, "because rock 'n' roll is a touring music, today's traveling minstrel music. Perhaps the biggest problem with touring a show this size is dealing with its Broadway scale and shoe-horning it into smaller venues. But what you will see in L.A. is very much the show on Broadway."

(Perhaps, indeed, bigger: The amphitheater production will be played on a specially constructed stage, which at 40 feet deep is about 12 feet deeper than the St. James Theatre stage in New York.)

The key word regarding the latest "Tommy" for Townshend and McAnuff, and for Steve Isaacs, who plays Tommy in the touring production and at the Amphitheatre, is adjustment.

In Townshend's case, he's noticed in his frequent visits to the tour's numerous stops that "the touring show has a directness and purity that helps the metaphor of the pinball stardom. The lights and image projections on stage are much more evident, lending it a surreality, a consciousness that you're watching a show. It seems to enforce the musical's themes of celebrity's power."

McAnuff's adjustment has been that of the veteran resident artistic director (which he was for more than 10 years at the La Jolla Playhouse,) overseeing a huge moving musical.

"Often," McAnuff says, "the show's original director will get it ready for a tour, then hand it over to another director. But both (choreographer) Wayne (Cilento) and I have kept a very close watch on things.

"Still, I'm not sure that if we had to do it all over again, we would have toured this way, with 14 or so one-week stops." Ticket demand has extended the amphitheater stop to a month, with the show running until Aug. 14.

Isaacs, who at 24 is a year younger than the original "Tommy" recording, may have no prior musical theater experience, but has had plenty before the camera as a former MTV vee-jay and in concert with his band, American Psycho. "I'm working hard," he says, "at not thinking about being a rock 'n' roll singer on stage. I don't know where it came from, but I had this weird confidence when I was called up for auditions. Then, I had to do it in front of Pete Townshend. Singing Pete's songs for Pete was a little daunting."

Calling "Tommy" a "temporary distraction from my real job" as a songwriter, Isaacs says that ever since playing the Pinball Wizard, the musical has inspired him to write his own song cycle. "The influence of what The Who did runs very deep in me."

The ultimate adjustment to accommodate "Tommy" has been at the amphitheater, which will look only vaguely familiar to venue regulars. To create proper sight lines for the proscenium stage, framed by TV monitors, the arena's seating has been reduced from 6,251 to 3,800, with a temporary acoustic wall blocking off the unused seats on the hall's left and right sides.

In a sense, this touring "Tommy" is as the show was originally envisioned. The initiating producer, Pace Theatrical Group, specializes in touring productions, and sealed the touring elements with Townshend months before any talk of Broadway surfaced. With McAnuff serving as what Townshend terms "my dramaturge" in La Jolla, solidifying the narrative of what had been a rock opera without libretto or book, the musical seemed destined for Broadway.

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