October 19, 2020

1994-01-22 – Detroit Free Press

1994 01 22 Detroit_Free_Press_Sat__Jan_22__1994_

Rock Opera is loud
but it sounds great
tmd boks good, too

BY LAWRENCE DEVINE
Free Press Theater Critic

Think of a 7-foot, 400-pound jock-
ey. Making it bigger does not auto-
matically make it better. But it sure
might be lively to watch, just like the
gargantuan “opera” they’ve made
out of Pete Townshend and the Who’s
noisy little 1969 album, “Tommy."
A major sound and light show,
“The Who’s Tommy” is splattered all
over the stage of the Masonic Temple
Theatre where the Metropolitan Op-
era played in days of yore. The hand-
some Masonic is appropriately huge
enough for the new “Tommy’s” flam-
ing pinball machines, rockets, British
paratroopers and the sonic shock
waves out of the orchestra pit.
All comes to those who wait — if
they have been waiting 25 years to
see the superstar band of the ’60s
“British invasion” swell up and go
Broadway. Like all the so-called pop
“operas,” “Tommy" is less than it
might be because it has no dialogue.
It’s not just “Tommy," but a routine
omission these days, which always
makes one suspect the authors were
not gifted enough to write any dia-
logue.
, But for those who do not care
. about old-hat items like character,
subtlety or vocal clarity, “Tommy"
onstage is rockdom’s own electric
‘ wonderland. Pumped up to fabulistic
K dimensions is the album originally
scored for the lads’ one guitar, bass,
drums and beautiful Roger Daltry’s
,. vocals.
Metal 40—foot girders of lights
tower beside and in back of the story
of the British boy who is traumatized

“The Who’s Tommy” a honderful

Steve lsaacs, center in white shirt, plays the adult Tommy and is one of the 30 cast members who help

make “The Who’s Tommy” an enjoyable experience. The show is playing at the Masonic Temple Theatre.

at age 4 and then finds his niche as an
amusement arcade phenomenon.
Technically, “Tommy" is gorgeous.
Giant slides on the backdrop flash
entire neighborhoods of apartment
blocks, World War II bombers soar
across the scrim, and television moni-
tors light up in video arcs across the
proscenium.

And the band plays on, pumping
out fusillades of synthesizers, guitars,
percussion and the deep halloo of a
French horn. The meat of_ “Tommy”
is simply an audience's getting a lot of
bang for the buck. The music as ever
is stirring, in the gut-felt way that
roller coasters are stirring. I find it,
however, all of the moment. New-
comers to “Tommy,” who did not

grow up memorizing the bravado of
then-24-year-old composer-lyricist
Pete Townshend, may find its songs
the Chinese food of most pop operas.

The production, no argument, is
staged with amazing imagination and
verve by Des McAnuff. Mc‘Anuff took
an album and made a stage behemoth
out of it, just as Hal Prince did with
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s robotic
“Evita.” The large cast of 30, led by
Steve Isaacs as the adult Tommy,
hurtles dramatically through the we]-
ter of neon and all-around fortissimo.
The choreography, by Wayne Ci-
lento, is perhaps the best part of the
show. The dances are sometimes
surreal. like the story. You recognize
the 19405 jitterbuggers, for instance,

but they’re doing it herky-jerky to a
rock rhythm, like Glenn Miller on
bennies.

The costumes are cunning, as loud
visually as the amplifiers are aurally.
Tommy is dressed all in white, the
symbol of light amid post-war Britain.
Around him is a pinball-machine color
scheme: surgeons in cheny red oper-
ating gowns, nurses in bright mustard
smocks, groupies in red and yellow
(and '605 blonde Sassoon flips) and
thuggy security guards in Mussolini
gray.

Textually, “Tommy" at this late
date comes on like an early Andrew
Lloyd Webber Jesus parable. Inter-
pret the lyrics right and you get
electric hero as rock star as messiah.

SATURDAY. JAI

ON STAGE: “The Who’s

Tommy, " a musical drama
with mum and lyrics

by Pete
Townshend and book by
Townshend and Des McAnu/fi
will play through Feb. 6 at
Masonic Temple Theatre, 500
Temple. Pen‘ormances: Tue.-
Frz'. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 & 8
p.m., Sun. at 2 & 7:30 pm.
Performance lasts: 2 hrs, 10
mins. Tickets: $25$4Z50.
Call 832-2232 anytime.

To the hubbub and thrashing of
Townshend’s pumped-up musical
scenario, the exotic, only child finds
his voice, becomes the hero of the
masses, is villified . . . and finally sings
out “I climb the mountain . . . I see
the millions . . . I see the glory.”

Only now, the millions see “Tom-
my.” Little Tommy, playing deaf,
dumb and blind after seeing his father
shoot down his mother’s lover, finds
stardom through electricity —- the
pinball machine. The adoring publi-
cans chant the famous lyric: “he sure
plays a mean pinball." Translate pin-
ball as guitar, and there you are.

And there “Tommy" is at the
Masonic Temple. It is full of sound
and furious energy. What it signifies
depends on old memories of Town-
shend, Daltry, John Entwistle and
Keith Moon. But, after opening night
was canceled due to subarctic tem-
peratures, there is this furnace to
raise Who lovers’ body heat.