Broadway Stages Flashy Rock Opera `Tommy'

THE WHO'S TOMMY. Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend. Directed by Des McAnuff. Playing at the St. James Theatre.

TO say that the Broadway production of "The Who's `Tommy'" approaches the quality of a rock concert is no backhanded compliment. Rock-concert staging exceeded Broadway standards years ago.

The audience excitement generated by this adaptation of a decades-old and by now somewhat quaint "rock opera" is a testament to the hunger that younger Broadway audiences have for anything vaguely contemporary, for anything they can claim their own. In fact, the first day of sale after opening, "Tommy" sold a record-breaking 1,000 tickets per hour.

"Tommy," the story of an emotionally scarred "deaf, dumb and blind kid [who] sure plays a mean pinball," has been staged before, but never with this kind of cohesiveness and lavish theatrical quality. The piece is probably best-known through Ken Russell's outlandish 1975 film version, an all-star affair featuring not only The Who but such ringers as Elton John and Tina Turner.

This version, newly adapted for the stage, is a collaboration between composer-lyricist Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, who co-wrote the book and directed. It premiered last year at the LaJolla Playhouse in LaJolla, Calif.

McAnuff has staged the all-music piece as a multimedia spectacle that relentlessly serves up a barrage of images, courtesy of Wendall K. Harrington's projections and video displays on dozens of television monitors.

The inventiveness of the staging wins applause beginning with the opening scene, in which paratroopers drop through the misty depths of the stage.

The adult Tommy, played by Michael Cerveris, makes his first appearance descending from the ceiling and later performs a dazzling series of flying somersaults. Another highlight is a spectacular pinball sequence in Act II, in which Tommy and his machine are flung about the stage with the abandon of an amusement-park ride, culminating in an explosive fireworks display.

And, of course, there is the story, in which Tommy, who witnesses at a young age the murder of his mother's lover by his father, retreats into a world of silence and catatonia. Tormented by his Uncle Ernie and cousin Kevin, he comes alive only when playing pinball, until an event in the second act brings him alive ("I'm Free").

This disjointed and tenuously allegorical story line was previously masked by the power of the music, played by one of the world's great rock bands. If you're not already familiar with the material, you're likely to be somewhat baffled. But the music still holds up beautifully.

If you've heard The Who play the score, or seen the visual excesses of the film adaptation, you're likely to find the stage rendition tame and underwhelming. Such comparison may be unfair, and certainly this reconceived "Tommy" works well enough on its own.

It provids a dazzling array of sights and sounds unlike anything else on Broadway, and it may single-handedly revive the reputation of the rock musical. But one wishes that less attention had been paid to theatrical slickness and a little more to the sloppy excesses of rock-and-roll.

* `The Who's `Tommy' begins its national tour in Dallas this October.

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