What, exactly, is The Who's rock opera Tommy really trying to tell us? The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is putting on a very good production of the show, but in the end, in trying to figure out what writer-composer Pete Townshend's social point may be, I feel as deaf, dumb and blind as the musical's title character.
Tommy is more mess than message, and no wonder. It started out in the late 1960s as a loose-knit concept album with a clearly anti-establishment finale. In the mid 1970s, Ken Russell turned it into one of his typical cinematic acid trips, and while the story got fleshed out, certain essential plot details were changed along the way. Finally, in the early 1990s, Townshend collaborated with stage director Des McAnuff on a Broadway version that thoroughly muddled whatever themes Tommy may have had in its earlier incarnations.
Is the title character's obsession with images of his past and future selves in the mirror a comment on the solipsistic "Me Decade" of the 1980s? After all, Tommy is cured of his psychosomatic inability to see, hear or speak only when his exasperated mother finally smashes the mirror. But if that's true, how to explain the current finale? By the end, Tommy has undergone an utterly bizarre transformation into a show that, instead of rejecting the establishment, affirms traditional family values--even though one member of the family is a bully, and another is an alcoholic child molester.
Tommy's father saves him from an attempted cure in which a prostitute wants to slip him some LSD; back in the day (in the album and the movie), Tommy's trip was integral to the story.
In short, despite its ambiguous attitude toward narcissism and the cult of celebrity, Tommy now heartily embraces Reagan-Thatcher social ideals. Preserve the nuclear family; just say no to drugs.
An amazing journey, indeed.
Well, at least we still have Townshend's music. It isn't as sophisticated as Richard Rodgers' or Leonard Bernstein's, but back in 1969, that wasn't the point--Tommy was a rock album. Sure, the lyrics are repetitive and a bit naive, but that was the nature of the genre. On their own terms, the songs are certainly more tuneful and memorable than most of the pablum Andrew Lloyd Webber has since spat out upon his cooing fans.
So here's the story: At age 4, little Tommy Walker sees his father kill his mother's lover. The parents, hoping to cover up the murder, tell Tommy, "You didn't hear it; you didn't see it; you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life." The kid takes this literally, and drops into Helen Keller mode.
He seems, however, to learn to interpret all physical sensations as music. Which is a good thing, because he's subjected to some rather unpleasant sensations. His drunken Uncle Ernie molests him, and his tough Cousin Kevin knocks him around a bit, too. But somehow, Tommy turns out to be a pinball wizard, the idol of the neighborhood (including Kevin's tough Teddy Boy friends).
By the time Tommy turns 20, his parents have nearly lost hope of curing his disabilities. In exasperation, his mother smashes the mirror in which Tommy seems to be gazing at his past and future selves. Suddenly, Tommy reverts to normal, which attracts media attention. Tommy invents a new self on the fly; he declares himself "free" and tries to show the path to enlightenment to his screaming multitude of followers, who seem to have latched onto Tommy when they couldn't get tickets to the next Beatles concert.
Naturally, the whole effort becomes commercialized; even Uncle Ernie starts hawking Tommy paraphernalia. Ultimately, Tommy questions his guru status. "Why would you want to be more like me?" he asks his disciples. "For 15 years, I was waiting for what you've already got. The point is not for you to be more like me. The point is ... I'm finally more like you. You don't need to hear me; you've got ideas of your own."
Disgusted, the disciples trudge off to audition for Jesus Christ Superstar. Tommy retires from the messiah biz and embraces the middle-class normality that Townshend explicitly rejected in earlier versions of the rock opera.
So if you're willing to buy into this revisionism, what of the UA production? First of all, director-choreographer Richard T. Hanson recognizes Tommy's limited potential for character development and rightly makes the show a triumph of logistics. The first act, especially, is a constant swirl of scene changes, with bits of scenery danced onto stage for a couple of minutes and then whisked off, with a series of overhead projections and videos designed by Peter Beudert and Roberto Gudiño enriching the presentation. Unfortunately, on opening night, the audio work wasn't up to their usual standards, and a lot of the lyrics got muddled or dropped out entirely.
As Tommy, Kyle Harris has a rare boy-next-door charisma; he's a fine actor-singer with a great stage presence that's almost equaled by the swaggering Christopher Violett as Cousin Kevin. Ali Kreindler is very good as Tommy's mother, and Michael Mendez is a nicely oily Uncle Ernie. As the Gypsy (the character who sings "Acid Queen"), Amelia Kearns doesn't quite try to impersonate Tina Turner, and puts the song across effectively on her own. The rest of the large cast generally brings the show off well, but they tend to be given only snippets of performance at a time.
Not everything works perfectly; for example, Tommy's cynicism doesn't quite come through as he invites his followers to come home with him and witness his "model" family life. But as a whole, the performance is much tighter and more coherent than the material Townshend has provided.