Michael Cerveris was in the original La Jolla Playhouse production of Tommy. It opened in July of 1992.
Time, July 27, 1992 v148 n4 p69 (1)
The Who's Tommy. La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, California
By William A. Henry III
Grade BTitle: The Who's Tommy
Music and Lyrics by Pete Townsend; Book by Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff
Where: La Jolla Playhouse
The Bottom Line: The grand ole rock opera gets an electrifying staging aimed at
What the Broadway musical most needs, short of stuffing the entire theatregoing public into
a time machine headed backward, is to make peace with rock music. When the form
had its heydey, its songs were the pop mainstream. Now there is no pop mainstream-
music, like the radio that delivers it, has become demographically fragmented- but rock
is the nearest equivalent. So long as Broadway keeps spurning that propulsive sound in
favor of Tin Pan Alley bygones and pseudo operettas, it confines its appeal to the
elderly of all ages.
Fortunately, no one is more attuned to this than the syndicate calling itself Dodgers-
the half dozen bright baby-boomer producers who are responsible for Big River, Into the
Woods, The Secret Garden, and the hit revival of that epitome of old Broadway, Guys
and Dolls. The canny group and some partners quietly funneled $500,000 in
"enhancement funds" into a seven week run at Southern California's nonprofit La Jolla
Playhouse of a new version of Tommy the original and still champion rock opera.
The work, created in 1969 by the British rockers the Who, qualifies as a nostalgia trip
for the mid-life-crisis crowd. Its action stretches back even further- from 1941, when
the title character's parents meet to 1963, when he emerges out of a strange and
tormented youth into saintly yet affable manhood. Nonetheless, the show is strikingly
more modern in style, subject, setting and above all sound than any "new" Broadway
musical since Chess in 1988.
As mounted by La Jolla's artistic director, Des McAnuff, Tommy is a work in progress.
The first act is clear, gripping and as fast as a rocket. In the second act, the narrative
splinters and slows down. The ideas seem less fresh - especially a much too long visual
riff on links between demagogic politics and celebrity culture- and emotional payoffs are
few, though one thrilling. And even for an antirock curmudgeon like this writer, for whom
music ended with Mahler, the show is never less than fun to hear and especially, see.
In essence Tommy is a fairy tale, its outer narrative based on spells and enchantments,
ordeals and rescues, its inner narrative an evocation of growing up and facing down the
everyday demons of adult life. Unlike the bizarre Ken Russell film, the narrative reshaped
for La Jolla by McAnuff and composer-lyricist Pete Townshend has an essential
innocence, maybe even an excess of optimism. The title character, apparently deaf and
blind from boyhood, is in fact rendered autistic by seeing his father shoot his mother's
lover- an infidelity made less sordid by the fact that the father, a WWII airman, had been
reported dead. Over the years the boy is sexually abused by an uncle, battered by a
cousin, tossed like a beanbag by insensitive adolescents. He remains serenely withdrawn.
When the spell is broken-when he re-enters reality-he seems unmarked. "I'm Free", he
sings in the second Act's stunning highlight, as he confronts his tormenters with confidence,
Although they will likely be replaced in any move, the La Jolla players are fine, especially
Marcia Mitzman as Tommy's mother, Cheryl Freeman as a gypsy hooker and
Michael Cerveris as Tommy- a ghostly image singing in the mirror as a child,
a world-embracing saint as a man, a victim made a poet.
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