Tommy Backstage - Broadway Reviews

began previews on Monday, March 29, 1993 on Broadway.

It opened officially on Thursday, April 22,1993 at the St James Theatre.

Broadway Reviews

`Tommy' better on Broadway | Polish added to wizardry that worked well here
By Welton Jones

23-Apr-1993 Friday
The Who's `Tommy

NEW YORK -- Last night, Broadway began learning what San Diego discovered
last summer at the La Jolla Playhouse: "The Who's `Tommy' " is a theatrical

The mighty musical epic composed 25 years ago by Pete Townshend for the
rock band named Who has been lovingly lifted to the apex of the American
theater mostly by the people who created it at La Jolla.

The grand news is that the show at Broadway's St. James Theater, with 14
additional actors, twice as many musicians and 10 more months of polishing,
is even better than before.

La Jolla audiences saw the real thing, make no mistake. But this is a deeper, broader,
richer, wiser "Tommy" adjusted not only to further exploit the raw emotional power
of the songs, but also to bond them into a narrative that works as a pop star's

Townshend's original creation -- with contributions from the Who's John Entwhistle
and Keith Moon -- was a loose collection of stirring songs about a boy so traumatized
by a childhood horror that he grew up blind and deaf, able to express himself only
through his uncanny ability to play pinball.

Last summer, in collaboration with the La Jolla Playhouse's Des McAnuff, the
composer nudged the material into a more cohesive form, suggesting parallels
between Tommy's emergence from dark silence into notoriety and Townshend's
own story.

Driven by McAnuff's blitzkrieg staging and brilliant design work, the La Jolla version
ripped right along until it stumbled over Tommy's sudden cure, his swift rise to stardom
and his abrupt switch to a wimpy evangelism, which outraged his followers. The story
went vague, but few cared, so powerful was the show's momentum.

Welcome changes

For Broadway, large chunks of Act II have been changed to clarify everything.
Now, after the cure, Tommy bolts from his home, dumps his family, scorns any
catch-up education and leaps right into the big time as a punk pinball wizard,
playing to the worshipful hordes.

The song about Sally Simpson, originally an interlude of innocence, has been rewritten
slightly, allowing Sally to serve as the touchstone of Tommy's next evolution,
from pop act to family man.

When the adoring fan Sally is savagely beaten by Tommy's goons, he's had enough.
He goes home and invites the world to join him there in a plea at once so attractive
and so naive that his followers suddenly feel exploited and turn upon him.

Tommy points out gently that he realizes now he has more to learn than to teach,
a simple idea that melts neatly into the finale, "Listening to You."

The plot suffers from efforts to keep the venerated score intact. Uncle Ernie's sinister
song about Tommy's holiday camp will never fit, for example, and there are many
places where the story must either sprint or dawdle to keep pace. A new song for the
parents -- "I Believe My Own Eyes" -- doesn't justify the effort.

But the glory of this project is the way the music rests so naturally on stage, thanks to
the sensitive efforts of all the artists involved.

McAnuff's eye is the key element, but John Arnone's giddy mixture of literal and
abstract scenery, expanded and elaborated from the La Jolla prototypes, inspires
excited awe.

The costumes, by David C. Woolard, are colored and shaped with the surreal
detail of a dream and executed crisply. Chris Parry's roisterous lighting succeeds
at one point in putting the whole audience inside a pinball machine, while the impact
of Wendall K. Harrington's projections has intensified since the La Jolla production.

Six of the show's principals and eight supporting actors come from the La Jolla
production, and they now work together as a seamless ensemble, striding through
McAnuff's aggressive, two-dimensional staging with supreme conviction.

In the title role, Michael Cerveris has matured admirably, even expanding the
enriched nuances of Act II backward to his early dream sequences.
Somewhere, Marcia Mitzman and Jonathan Dokuchitz have found new vocal
resources to match their more delicately shaded portraits of decent but guilt-ridden

Paul Kandel is slightly paler and softer as Uncle Ernie, and Anthony Barrile is
calmer and more complex as Cousin Kevin, both improvements. Cheryl Freeman's
Acid Queen seems too domesticated now, and Sherie Scott, the only new principal,
has Sally Simpson reduced to mere bimbo.

The whole company is a joy, though, including Buddy Smith, the youngster playing
the catatonic boy Tommy. Everybody flings himself into Wayne Cilento's strenuous
choreography, choppy and thrusting to the edge of cruelty, and sings robustly as Joseph
Church conducts the expanded pit band with steely integrity.

McAnuff simply never falters. Several of his notions -- notably the paratroopers
dropping through a trap door -- translate into big-time theater myth, the sort of thing
that will make this show La Jolla's gift to Broadway for a long time to come.

San Diego Union-Tribune, April 23, 1993

After 25 years, Tommy still plays a mean pinball
By David W. Johnson
Johnson is director of communications at Phillips Exeter Academy in New

21-Apr-1994 Thursday

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the birth of a phenomenon: the deaf, dumb
and blind kid who is at the center of The Who's "Tommy," now a Tony Award
-winning Broadway show, first staged at the La Jolla Playhouse, and soon to be
an interactive CD-ROM.

"Tommy" was conceived in a rambling interview that The Who's Pete Townshend
gave to Rolling Stone magazine in September 1968, describing his plans to write a
rock opera -- whatever that was. Then came the hard work of writing and recording
-- followed by the first full live performance at an unannounced concert outside London
on April 22, 1969.

As one who reviewed the "Tommy" double album the month it came out and liked it,
thank God -- I've been following young Tommy's somewhat suspended development
for all of these years. Last summer, I made a trip to New York to see the show on
Broadway, fantasizing on the way down that Pete Townshend would be backstage
and I would have a chance to met him.

Well, odd dreams sometimes come true. I did have my unexpected meeting with the
show's creator -- an encounter that made me look into the mirror of my own faded
youth and at the realities of encroaching middle age. I also thought about why this
simple story has such legs in our complex times. But first back to Broadway . . .

After the show, when the man at the backstage door gave the OK, my companion
rushed into the darkness to see her friend Michael Cerveris, who plays the title role
as he did in La Jolla. Following her, I stopped in my tracks as I noticed the man in
blue denims to my left. His face, though weathered by age and experience, was instantly
familiar from a hundred different photographs.

"Pete," I blurted, "the show is wonderful. I bought the original album the first day it
came out."

"Thank you," he nodded.

"It must really be satisfying for you to see it fleshed out on Broadway."

"It is," he said, amused by my enthusiasm. "I'm glad you like it."

End of conversation.

I had first seen The Who in the summer of 1968 in Boston. It was the first concert
of their first American tour, other than their spectacular guitar-smashing appearance
at the Monterey Pop Festival the summer before.

As an early, avid subscriber to Rolling Stone, I had read the interview in which
Townshend outlined the concept that was to become Tommy. I thought it was sort
of a drugged-out fantasy. Years later I learned that it was Townshend's anti-drug
reaction to the hippy, trippy times he and the rest of us were living in. Tommy, the
character, may go on an "amazing journey," but it's through the miracle of his own senses.

The day the two-record set of "Tommy" arrived in Cambridge, Mass., I was there.
At first, fanatical as I was about The Who's earlier albums, I was disappointed by
"Tommy." It was too soft. Its overarching concept didn't allow for the variety of
musical approaches and humor that eclectic albums like "Happy Jack" and "The
Who Sell Out" had.

Then, while listening to the album for perhaps the third or fourth time, "Tommy"
reached me. The plaintive refrain "Touch me . . . feel me . . .see me . . . heal me"
found a resonance in my soul.

It has taken me years to realize that, like the central character, I had been taught as a
child to ignore my feelings. I had been pushed into my own state of emotional autism.
Knowing none of this then, I reviewed "Tommy" for the newspaper I worked on,
declaring it a success: "The Who have now proved that their music stands up to the
best that rock and roll can provide -- and it pushes the field to new standards of
dignity that rock has been seeking for years."

I never did see the movie version of "Tommy." The director had camped it up, and
what had touched me about the original was its simplicity. By turns joyous, angry,
confused, ecstatic and comic, The Who recording had become enough for me.
I resented it when Hollywood -- or those catering to Hollywood -- capitalized on the
force that was rock.

In seeing "Tommy" on Broadway, I suspended such judgments. I wanted to give
this experience a chance, knowing it had Townshend's active collaboration.

From the massive opening chord, I was enthralled. By the time the athletic
Michael Cerveris was riding a bronco-like pinball machine that belched flames
as wall-mounted lights and speakers converted the theater itself into the pinball
game, I was transfixed.

To what can we attribute "Tommy's" staying power? My belief is that Tommy is
every child, at least in terms of today's dysfunctional families. Shouted into silence
and told what to think and feel, he thinks and feels nothing. But buried inside is the
germ of spirit and rebellion that enables him to overcome his condition and find a
vehicle to express himself.

Pinball may not be everyone's idea of an art form, but in the original music and on
Broadway, it does convey Tommy's underlying message of personal redemption.

In interviews, Townshend has complained of hearing loss and a damaged right wrist
that interferes with his ability to hold a guitar pick. Looking into his eyes backstage,
I could see this history.

I also knew I was looking into the eyes of a wise man -- in his word, an avatar.
He has offered us a fable that will stand, a story for the ages -- a deaf, dumb and blind
kid who sure plays a mean pinball.

Copyright San Diego Union-Tribune, April 24, 1994

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