September 20, 2008

Review: "The Who's Tommy" (Dallas Theater Center)

Back in 1969, The Who released Tommy, a concept album which was an adaptation of the life of Meher Baba, a man who was later immortalized in the single Baba O'Riley.

By 1975, The Who were pretty much sick of Tommy, and when approached to do a film version, the band decided to just sell out and go with it so they could get some final cash from their work and be done with it (hence the reason they are seen as the backup band for Elton John in the film wearing suits made of pound notes).

By 1990, Pete Townshend had gotten over his angst and worked to create an official musical adaptation of the rock opera which gave rise to The Who's Tommy. With the addition of just a couple of dozen lines of dialogue and very minor changes to lyrics, they managed to transform the concept album into a musical filled with nuance and subtext and a compelling storyline.

When I heard that a regional production was going to start up, I was thrilled. I managed to see the original at the St. James Theater in New York back in 1994, and I had missed the previous travelling productions, so I was anxious to see it again. After looking at the promotional materials and seeing it was being promoted as the La Jolla production instead of one of the previous unauthorized iterations, I was stoked. I bought the best seats in the house (4th row center), we arrived at the theater on time and I was the first one through the door.

The stage was rather different than I expected. A pinball machine was mounted in the middle of a hole atop a raised stage. The band was in the middle of the stage, which looked like a gothic dock in the middle of a bombed out city. No mirror to be seen.

The Playbill showed an ethnically diverse cast, including an African-American Tommy. I was actually okay with that. The cast back in 1994 was extremely white-bread.

The play started with Captain Walker (now an American soldier) being taken hostage by a terrorist cell in Iraq. Again, I could see shifting the play from the U.K. to the U.S. and even shifting it to modern day. I thought the director was keeping it topical, but I was a little disappointed because I felt that England itself was really a character in the original production.

As time went on, I started to get worried. They cut dialogue, rearranged songs, and had senseless lyric rewrites. The reason the stage was raised was that they started to fill the bottom of it with water. I was confused...this wasn't the play they had marketed, but I figured they were trying to trim some time to keep from having to have an intermission and were just trying to make it work. Eyesight for the Blind changed from a pimp pushing his hooker to a Pentacostal preacher and his faith healer and the father and mother just handed their child over to the Acid Queen/hooker.

After Go to the Mirror! and a great performance of Smash the Mirror, Mrs. Walker threw Tommy into the water to "break the mirror." Tommy gets up, sings Sensation, has a pointless Sally Simpson exchange, forms a cult, puts everyone in sensory deprivation helmets and gets shot by The Man.

Now, I could see that the artistic director wanted to make a statement, but I could also tell he had no idea what statement he wanted to make. He tried so hard to make any statement that he essentially gutted the intent of the original work. He turned a story about redemption and forgiveness into a revenge tale that basically says that if a black person gets too uppity and reaches beyond his established station that they will be gunned down by The Establishment. That message was reinforced by the theater company representative in the after-show discussion.

The cast was extremely talented, the choreography was dead on, and there was definite energy from all involved. It just wasn't the Tommy that was promised and promoted.

1 comment:

Okie said...

I saw "The Who's Tommy" once (about 10 years ago up at Kingsbury Hall) and I really enjoyed it. I haven't yet seen the movie version, mainly because I've heard so much bad press about it.

I can definitely see where it would have a lot of flexibility for directorial discretion to change the flow/message. Unfortunately, I could also see where directorial changes could make for a confusing and disjointed show.