Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Tommy Boy

By Chris Davis

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Before I go any further, I want to say that Playhouse on the Square’s production of The Who’s Tommy is colorful, energetic, and the songs are undeniably great. I say this because it is true, and because many people will like Tommy for these reasons alone. So if this is enough information for you, then stop reading now. I don’t want my pedantic ranting to spoil anybody’s fun.

If rock-and-roll is spiritual, its spirituality rises from a cosmic swamp of violence and volume. Don’t let the guitar geeks and Yes fanatics fool you; it’s not about Zen. Rock is purely Pentecostal. Fans of the Who lucky enough to be in attendance the first time Pete Townshend smashed his guitar must still be speaking in tongues. Playhouse on the Square’s staging of the Who’s Tommy is admirable and ambitious, but it lacks the volume, violence, and possibility of revolution required to summon the spirit of rock to the stage. It is a pop pastry superficially dealing with issues of abuse, forgiveness, and redemption.

Many problems stem from the fact that Tommy has only the thinnest hint of a storyline, and little was done in the final stage adaptation by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff to fill in the gaps. The first quarter of the show moves quickly and with a great deal of style. Director Shorey Walker’s very specific and highly energetic choreography carries the story even when the lyrics and minimal dialogue fail to do so. Once Tommy is rendered blind, deaf, and dumb, the choreography becomes more ornamental to the story than intrinsic to it, and things start to break down. Were it not for the lines “Down with the bedclothes, up with your night-shirt” it would be difficult to tell exactly what wicked Uncle Ernie (Wm. Perry Morgan-Hall) was doing to the helpless Tommy. It looked more like he was casting a feeble spell on the boy than fiddling about with his privates.

While Sean Lyttle (Cousin Kevin) turns in one of Tommy’s most fully realized performances, his abusiveness is so understated as to be not stated at all. The Acid Queen and her cohorts, dressed like refugees from Anne Rice’s Halloween party, bounce about artlessly cracking leather belts like some Monty Python spoof of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. If “Acid Queen” was about LSD, it wasn’t psychedelic, and if it was about sleazy sex, then somebody needs to call Dr. Ruth today and beg for help. The cast, and notably Michael Detroit and David Foster, do a fine job of singing “Christmas,” but its overly literal, Bible-thumping presentation is tedious and makes me long for Ken Russell’s divine commentary on fetish and celebrity.

The band is generally lame. They have the chords, but they don’t have the chops, and they play with timidity when they need to be attacking their instruments. The flamenco-inspired opening riff of “Pinball Wizard” should be enough to get the audience up on its feet, but here it barely sneaks out in recognizable form. Fortunately, the Playhouse stage is blessed with a surplus of vocal talent that often (for better or worse) overwhelms the band. David Patrick Ford as Tommy has all the makings of a teen idol and an arsenal of vocal pyrotechnics that could put Getty Lee to shame. When he and the cast launch into the final chorus of “We’re Not Gonna Take It!” it’s almost moving.

Townshend intended for Tommy to be a spiritual journey from darkness into light, reflecting his own forsaking of psychedelics for the blissful highs of Meher Baba’s “Don’t worry, be happy” philosophy. Karma aside, he added the song “Pinball Wizard” as an afterthought, and only to secure the good review of music journalist Nic Cohn, and thereby sell some records. That which has become Tommy’s spine began as nothing more than a gimmick, and although all of the pinball references sound way cool on vinyl, Pinball’s role in the unfolding drama (physicalized but not fetishized) is unclear. Playhouse’s Tommy is not bad, but it is neither truly an opera, nor truly a rock concert. It is an amped-up musical review that makes the fatal mistake of pretending to be a whole lot more.

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