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"During this entire project, it was critically important to me not to mess with Tommy, not to turn it into something else but to fulfill it...occasionally, of course, we get audience members who resist any changes. There are people who really feel like they own this, that this has been part of them, and they don't want anything to change."
Des McAnuff, the director of The Who's Tommy, spoke those words in 1992, just before his Broadway production of the rock opera won five Tony awards. At the time, he was speaking about fans of The Who, who just wanted a concert without all the flashy theatrical interpretation. But today, his words come back to haunt me.
Having just witnessed an entirely different version of Tommy (directed by Worth Gardner with musical direction by Scot Woolley), I want to scream and shout at the travesty I had to sit through for just under two hours. But I'm trying to be rational and analyze why I feel this way about what many would call a perfectly nice theater experience. Perhaps I didn't like this particular production because it was so different from the first national tour, which won my heart and soul five years ago. Perhaps I couldn't stand it because all the qualities that won Tommy five Tony’s in the first place--including scenery, lighting and Wayne Cilento's brilliant choreography--are all gone now. Perhaps I am one of the people McAnuff was referring to, one who feels like she owns the show and can't stand to have it changed.
Or perhaps this new version of Tommy is oversimplified, fraught with terrible acting and less-than-polished voices, and does not deserve to have either McAnuff or Pete Townshend's good names attached to anything near it.
The beginning of the show may seem promising to most but foretells ultimate doom to us hard-core Tommy connoisseurs. A crowd of actors wearing "interpretational" black costumes of various sorts--most of the men are in leather or vinyl pants, and one tall woman wears her hair in disgustingly cute pigtails--belt out the dates and settings of scenes in incomprehensible British accents. They go on to mimic war planes, perform a bad faux jitterbug that's not even in Townshend's original score and basically stand around looking useless for irritatingly long periods of time.
The key actors, unfortunately, don't do much better. Paul Dobie, as the incestuous Uncle Ernie, displays genuine vocal talent, but the new staging--or lack thereof--of "Fiddle About," in which he molests Tommy, features none of the tasteful (yes, you read that right) shock value that the original production bears and instead leaves the audience squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Virginia Woodruff (the Gypsy Queen) shows strong potential, but poor blocking and choreography prevent her from shining the way her solo "Acid Queen" could. Christopher Monteleone (Captain Walker) displays little-to-no chemistry with his shrill melodramatic wife (played by Lisa Capps), who weeps and wails her lines into a tuneless mess. While Michael Gruber (Cousin Kevin) must be applauded for his sexy bleached hair and fine-looking body, his own pitch skills also need serious development.
Most disappointing is Tommy himself, Michael Seelbach. Under the smug and self-satisfied leers he directs at the audience, the now-famous words "See me/Feel me/Touch me/Heal me" are twisted from a heartfelt plea into a whiny demand for attention. In the scene in which his bodyguards beat up Sally Simpson, he does not run to her rescue, snarling at the attackers and tenderly holding her close. Instead, he screams childishly at everyone, and falls onto the floor alongside Sally, crying bitterly for himself beside the nearly clubbed-to-death girl. If his Tommy is blind, deaf or mute (or dumb, as Townshend's original words state), he certainly hides it well.
Denise Summerford, as Sally Simpson, is by far the brightest-burning beacon of talent in the cast. Though her moments onstage are painfully sparse, she belts her solos with enough charm, spunk and spirit almost to compensate for the poorly-timed lighting designs and zero-imagination choreography she's stuck in--almost.
Overall, the show has changed for the worse, but some good reasoning must have been behind such a decision. Admittedly, the original Broadway and first national tour productions of Tommy were horrifically expensive--bright costumes, extensive audio-visual equipment (including a border of TVs that framed the set) and a pinball machine that whirled in mid-air before exploding all cost money. True, fancy props do not necessarily a great musical make (Disney's hackneyed and overpriced Beauty and The Beast: The Musical, for example.) But when combined with the already-dazzling score of Tommy, the effects of the original production truly were phenomal.
The new production ultimately fails for a number of reasons. Having the band onstage severely limited the choreographical possibilities of the production. Ultra-simplistic costumes (and anachronistic ones, in the case of Mrs. Walker's '90sstyle tank tops and miniskirts) are an interesting artistic possibility, but they make this Tommy look like a bad interpretation of an interpretation. (Think a "Tribute to Broadway Revue" on a Carnival Cruise ship.) In addition, there is simply no reason for the Colonial Theater to charge people $70 to watch and hear genuinely bad acting and singing.
When my family and I went to see Tommy five years ago, we--mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents-all entered the theater mad as hell at each other, for various reasons. We watched a musical about a child who witnesses a murder, is driven to blindness and muteness by his parents' hysteria, is molested by his uncle, becomes a pinball god, turns into a rock star and finally becomes a normal and forgiving person. The costumes and lights whirled before us with delirious madness. The volume was through the roof. And at the end of the show, we all looked at each other with happy grins and said, "Let's all go out to eat together!"
What drove Des McAnuff into allowing such a stunning, moving and magnificently consuming musical to be dissected into a mere fraction of what it once was?
In the words of Captain and Mrs. Walker during Act II's vibrant song "Go To the Mirror," "I wish I knew."
I wish I knew.
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