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Theater : Embracing 'Tommy' at Universal

July 18, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"The Who's Tommy" is back, proving that the deaf, dumb and blind kid belongs, now and forever, in a theater. In this case, the Universal Amphitheatre, at least until Aug. 14.

Since the 1992 La Jolla Playhouse premiere and the Broadway opening the following year, much has been written about the evolution of the Who's 1969 rock opera into Des McAnuff's thrilling stage version, making its Los Angeles debut in this touring production. Like the original, it uses projected and real free-floating images to turn the huge Amphitheatre stage into a flashing, spinning pinball machine and about 50 other settings with astounding fluidity.

The amazing journey of Tommy--who becomes a pinball-playing international sensation--has been altered for a different, more cautious generation. Now, when Tommy breaks out of his sensationless prison and claims that "freedom lies here in normality," he refers not to a Zen quiet in the aftermath of throbbing music and mind-altering drugs, but a return to ordinary family life after the frightening isolation of psychosis.

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The image of the young Tommy in white knickers, with his bowl-cut hair and strangled expression, is so potent that it seems to reach the state of icon. The equally potent symbols of Tommy's isolation and possibility for escape--the mirror, doors and windowpanes that float through the story--touch the emotions in strange and unexpected ways. Those emotions coalesce when Tommy sings his anthem, "See me / Feel me / Touch me / Heal me," while gazing in the mirror. They provide powerful islands of reflection in the inhospitable landscape that "Tommy" occupies.

The actors are servants to the show's technology, to McAnuff's precision staging and to Wayne Cilento's inventive but insistent choreography. The story presses aggressively forward and the actors must stay on the beat or be mowed down. It seems like a difficult and fairly thankless task, and the cast is impressive. Only the pathetic child molester Uncle Ernie (William Youmans) is allowed idiosyncrasy, but even he seems controlled by a metronome. As the grown up Tommy, Steve Isaacs sings rough and well but lacks rock-star charisma. No matter; the production has charisma to spare.

McAnuff uses Pete Townshend's pulsing score to pursue his own obsessions. In the end this "Tommy" is about the ecstasy of communion that is theater itself. Tommy journeys from an internal hell, to an understanding of his earlier selves, to a reconciliation with the family that has traumatized him, to an embrace of the wide world at large. That embrace--the exchange between teller and listener, between artist and audience--is enacted in the final, direct address of the actors to the Amphitheatre crowd.

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Advancing to the stage apron and making eye contact with the audience, the huge company sings, "Right behind you I see the millions / On you I see the glory / From you I get opinions / From you I get the story." The interchange is so simple and astonishing that you're left hoping for more of it in an encore. McAnuff is enough of a showman not to give it to you. You'll simply have to go back again.

* "The Who's Tommy," Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City, Tuesday-Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Ends Aug . 14. $44-$64.50. (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Steve Isaacs: adult Tommy Jessica Molaskey: Mrs. Walker Jason Workman: Mr. Walker William Youmans: Uncle Ernie Roger Bart: Cousin Kevin

A production of PACE Theatrical Group and Dodger Productions. Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend. Book by Townshend, Des McAnuff. Director McAnuff. Additional music and lyrics John Entwistle, Keith Moon. Choreographer Wayne Cilento. Scenery John Arnone. Costumes David C. Woolard. Lighting Chris Parry. Projections Wendall K. Harrington. Sound Steve Canyon Kennedy. Video Batwin + Robin Productions. Orchestrations Steve Margoshes. Vocal arrangement Joseph Church. Musical director Wendy Bobbitt. Musical coordination John Miller. Special effects Gregory Meeh. Flying by Foy. Fight Director Steve Rankin. Production stage manager Bill Roberts. Technical supervision Gene O'Donovan.

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