In the lobby of the Orange County Performing Arts Center for the opening night of “The Who’s Tommy,” there stood the sign present at many theatrical productions: “Warning: Strobe lights will be used during this performance.” Printed between the lines in smaller letters was an addendum: “And firearms.”
One imagines Beavis and Butt-head, reluctantly dragged along to the theater by their parents, digesting this information and suddenly chiming, “ Cool .”
Beyond pyrotechnics, members of the grandchildren-of-Woodstock generation might also find a comforting familiarity in the presence in the title role (as Tommy, that is, not the Who) of Steve Isaacs, the former MTV veejay who, it turns out, can not only introduce videos but sing, dance, climb the rafters and be convincingly catatonic.
But there weren’t many members of Beavis'--or even Isaacs'--generation in attendance Tuesday.
Pete Townshend’s 1969 “rock opera,” recently transubstantiated into Tony-winning musical theater, now seems to appeal to much the same audience as would attend an Andrew Lloyd Webber opening. Unlike most rock-based stage shows of years past, “The Who’s Tommy” is being taken seriously by the older theatergoing crowd at large, not patronized as a bring-the-kids ticket: Grayhairs outweighed towheads here by a substantial margin. (And only a few were seen heading for their cars at intermission grumbling something about ". . . too loud.”)
But should creator Townshend--to borrow his most famous phrase--have hoped “Tommy” died before it got old?
For a devotee of the Who’s original album who’s seen the work through various concert and movie readings, this latest incarnation for the stage is at times spectacularly successful, and in its best, most promising moments feels almost like an inevitable culmination of what Townshend began those 25 years ago. But the impressiveness of the surface ease of translation finally isn’t nearly enough.
In winning the battle of making an elliptical rock album “work” for a mainstream audience as epic drama, the war has been lost, with nary a trace of real emotion or thematic resonance left in the piece, which once was quite moving. The final “Sensation” left here for a longtime “Tommy” fan is enormous letdown, if not embarrassment.
Comparisons with the album aside, it’s hard to think of any other stage musical that has a more thrilling opening or a more ridiculously hollow ending than this “Tommy,” although the richness of the melodies in Townshend’s largely preserved song score remains unscathedly brilliant to the finish.
The first 15 minutes, which set up Tommy’s World War II-era birth and childhood trauma, are contemporary-theater-as-magic-act at its jaw-dropping best: As in the La Jolla Playhouse and New York productions that preceded this touring show, there’s much stunning visual shorthand in the use of moving projections on scrims; giant, well-imagined set pieces that are on and gone before you noticed how they got there; parachuting soldiers dropping through trap doors, and exchanging ( yesss! , as Beavis would say) gunplay.
The supporting players prove generally well-conceived, once the proper book begins. The one new song Townshend has added for the theater, “I Believe Mine Own Eyes,” while superfluous, is a well-meaning attempt to flesh out Tommy’s parents and give them problems of their own. The “deaf, dumb and blind” child’s tormentors seem more human here than, say, in the film version, and for once the child-molesting uncle isn’t played as a comedic leering lech, but as an all-too-credible nervous wreck who seems scarily apologetic while announcing “I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie . . . .”
The problems really begin in earnest when the autistic Tommy, as a young adult, “becomes aware” after seeing his reflection smashed.
As grown Tommy, poor Isaacs might be done in before he even started--between the memory of him as an MTV personality and the silly look he’s given here, where a child’s bowl haircut and an all-white outfit combine to suggest the ghost of Pete Best as a stock-car driver. He can sing, but he doesn’t have the presence to overcome the role as currently ill-conceived.
On the album and in the film, Tommy wakes up enlightened and immediately becomes a messianic guru figure, only to have his followers finally rebel against his strictures, and their rebellion in turn re-enlightens him. Those are heady concepts to get across on stage. Rather than try, Townshend and director Des McAnuff have re-conceived what used to be Side 4 of the album, rewriting a good deal of the lyrics and even reversing major thematic elements.
Now when Tommy at last becomes sentient, he’s an angry, stuck-up cuss who sings “I’m Free” spitefully, not with Roger Daltrey’s sense of liberation. (Watching Isaacs play arrogant is not pleasant.) He even goes on a TV talk show to claim that he doesn’t want to be a leader. This weird revisionism plays out like “The Last Temptation of Tommy.”
All the edges have been softened, in fact. When Tommy’s followers rebel, it’s because, as the most reluctant of pop stars, he willingly goads them into it. Any references to “messiah” or “disciples,” satirical or otherwise, have been written out for this more secular age. The groupie Sally Simpson, instead of having her head bashed in as she’s pushed off the stage, now not only gets to save face but hang out with Tommy afterward. The parents also have become sympathetic figures; Dad reconsiders handing Tommy over to the Gypsy during “Acid Queen” at the last second, rendering the whole point of having the number in the show moot, other than that people expect it.
The show’s most unintentionally hilarious moment is, unfortunately, its emotional climax: Tommy and his dad exchange tentative shoulder pats and then--aw, come on, you guys-- hug . Huh? “The Who’s Tommy” is no longer so much a biting, funny, moving, rocking rumination on child abuse, pop iconography, religion and revelation: It’s the feel-good hit of the summer for people who loved “Field of Dreams.”
* “The Who’s Tommy” continues tonight and Friday at 8 p . m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $19-$45. (714) 556-2787. It moves to the Universal Amphitheatre July 13-31. For ticket information, call (818) 980-9421.