Pinball Lizard

As John Lennon and Paul McCartney once wrote: "I should've known better." Rock and roll has always worked best as anthems of youthful power and rebellion, so something had to be rotten in the state of Broadway when the majority of the critics and theater audiences so readily accepted and praised Tommy, the Who's 1969 rock opera/concept album written by Pete Townshend, which opened on the Great White Way in April of this year.

The story of the deaf, dumb, and blind child who becomes a reluctant rock messiah never impressed me as a work of musical genius, as, say, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the Sixties spawned many experiments that an eager generation swallowed gleefully without question, and so Tommy went on to enjoy a series of celebrated renditions. It has been mounted in the Metropolitan Opera House, in a film directed by Ken Russell, at Radio City Music Hall, and finally as a musical theater project developed under the guidance of Des McAnuff and Pete Townshend at the La Jolla Playhouse before moving to Broadway.

The arrival of Tommy, now grandly touted as the first great rock musical, marks the appearance of a form I hope writers of future works will soon transcend. I dub it the rocksicle, a specious musical format that rhymes with popsicle. Boasting the same shallow spectacle of special effects numbing audiences into submission as Starlight Express or Miss Saigon, this show attempts to appeal to all crowds and fails as art in the process. Neither a rock concert nor a rousing play, Tommy unfolds as nothing more than an artificially engineered hybrid, as slick as Madonna, as corporate as Michael Jackson, as soulless and meaningless as Paula Abdul. Far from being a grand new moment in the history of musical theater, it's just another hyped-up product for the consumer generation, designed to sell sweatshirts, mugs, and posters to suckers of all ages.

In short, if you want to see rock and roll, go to the Radiators concert later this month. If you want a great musical, see Phantom of the Opera or the upcoming classic, Guys and Dolls. On the other hand, if you cherish light rock and VH-1 and other cop-outs that convince you you're still a revolutionary hippie at heart even though you have a two-car garage and a secure job, Tommy will fit nicely into your brand of hypocrisy.

The technical aspects of the show on opening night didn't help the bland production, either. With only 24 hours to load the set in, many special effects weren't attempted, such as Tommy taking flight a la Peter Pan. Still, there remained enough flashing pinball lights and rapidly shifting projected images to satisfy techno-freaks. The worst deficiencies, however, came from the sound, and as any true rocker knows, sound is everything. When I complained about the acoustics, people kept reassuring me that "it is loud, but you have to get used to it."

Excuse me. I sang rock and roll. I sat every Saturday night with my ear plastered against the speakers at the Fillmore East. I know loud, and that wasn't the problem. The basic flaw was that the sound was shrill, with no mid-range and bass response to give the music body. High-end treble turned up above everything else is not loud, it's just annoying. When Kennya Ramsey shrieked out the "Acid Queen" song, I expected all the glass to shatter and a pack of wild dogs to come rushing through the doors.

As for the cast, everyone did a fine job as musical theater hoofers, but not one displayed a speck of the charisma so effortlessly embodied by Roger Daltrey or Tina Turner in the film version. Perhaps money would be better spent teaching rock stars how to act rather than coaching actors to sing rock and roll. Better yet, get Sting and Linda Ronstadt out of those Gilbert and Sullivan vehicles and let them tackle a form they know how to convey. When Elton John completes his upcoming musical project, I hope he locates singers who know how to cook, not just puree.

The performances here are stripped of all the grit and sensuality that give great rock its power. Yes, the actors all muddle through adequately: Jessica Molasky as Tommy's frustrated mother, Jason Workman as Captain Walker, his frustrated father, and William Youmans as Uncle Ernie, Tommy's child-molesting relative -- but there's no heart in either their characterizations or vocalizations. They bring to mind rock lounge lizards singing Who songs in a Holiday Inn, or even those Joe Piscopo parodies of Frank Sinatra singing "Under My Thumb." Steve Isaacs as the adult Tommy does better, emitting greater vocal energy; his acting skills, however, don't match the voice. When he's still disabled, Isaacs slumps in stereotypical fashion around the stage, offering no idea of Tommy's inner turmoil. After being miraculously healed when his mother smashes his full-length mirror, Isaacs plays the confident Tommy as an angry young dude with an attitude, making his final transition into a Christ-like figure abrupt and unbelievable.

Des McAnuff, applauded heartily by the New York press for bringing this piece to blazing life, stages Townshend's work as though it were The Music Man or some other retrogressive piece; people sway to the left, walk to the right, and form a line, dancing in and out of cute little groups. Everything looks blocked and artificial.

In fact, the Phantom of the Opera's "music of the night" looks much hipper, much smoother, and far more inventive. But since we are a society that readily accepts the Emperor's New Clothes if enough publicists convince us of the illusion, and since Lloyd Webber is considered middle-of-the-road and Townshend has been crowned the theatrical equivalent of way-cool, everyone pronounces Tommy as a progressive work when it isn't. Never mind that old Pete hasn't written many good tunes since the early Seventies, and Lloyd Webber is a brilliant composer. Forget that Phantom's orchestration has bite and force, while Tommy relies on too much choral singing and wimpy orchestration. Forget that Phantom has a strong story, while Tommy is just a bunch of music video-like images flashing (but not fleshing) out the hackneyed premise that people abuse other people but nevertheless must be forgiven.

Well, maybe everyone else can ignore these inadequacies. But I can't.
The only kudos I'm willing to offer Tommy is that its presence represents a seminal step toward integrating more contemporary music into the theater. After all, no one remembers the work of George Edwardes, whose first show in the 1890s, In Town, formally marks A according to The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre A the birth of the musical as a form. Similarly, Tommy owns a few good moments, a few nice technological tricks, and of course, some memorable rock tunes like "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me, Feel Me." There's a glimmer of hope here, but a truly inspired composer and director need to take the form into a new realm, using true creativity if young people are going to re-enter the theater in droves, as producers pray they will.

When rock and hip-hop and cutting-edge music finally become wedded to a strong, interesting plot line, fascinating characters, and a consistently excellent score, the marriage will produce grand new theater. Then I bet Tommy will become no more than a small item in reference books, just like Edwardes's work.

And I'll also wager one more thing: the first true rock musical will be born when it has the same generational impact that rock and roll itself once had. It will happen when a show opens on Broadway that prompts traditional audiences to flee and critics to express shocked disapproval, but creates a word of mouth among young audiences that leads to frantic lines at the box office. Meanwhile, judging by Tommy's financial success among baby boomers and the old bourgeoisie, I suppose we're now in for a flood of these rocksicles. As for me, I won't get fooled again.


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