The story of Tommy began in 1969 as a concept album, and in 1993, Townshend and director Des McAnuff reformatted the album into a hit Broadway musical that won five Tony Awards. The score has some remarkable songs, including "Acid Queen," "Listening to You," and "Pinball Wizard," and the book utilizes some masterful storytelling through music, particularly the wordless overture which tells the story of Tommy's parents' wedding and separation.
As a child, young Tommy (L.J. Benet) witnesses his parents (Alice Ripley and Tom Schmid) kill her lover in self-defense. They demand that he "never heard it, never saw it" -- leaving the child so traumatized that he becomes deaf, mute and blind. His petrified folks take Tommy (later, the outstanding Lorenzo Doryon) to every medical and religious possibility in hopes of a cure to no avail. Meanwhile, his relatives, include the sadistic Cousin Kevin (PJ Griffith) and the alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Hank Adams) torture and exploit him. Only later, when he grows up to be a world pinball champion, does Tommy find anything good in his life.
Ripley, who also starred in the Broadway production, often seems more disinterested than her comatose son in the show's goings-on, except for her big number, "Smash the Mirror," when she overacts. Her British accent is spot-on, but she appears to be concentrating on her dialect more than her acting or singing. Conversely, Schmid, who has a lovely tenor voice, transmits tangible pathos for the son whose soul is locked away deep inside.
Griffith is electrifying, portraying Kevin as the ultimate hustler. In a clever touch, he twirls his baton like an extended penile substitute, which fits into the psyche of a school bully who would torture a deaf, dumb, and blind boy. Adams brings rare humanity to the child-molesting Ernie, acting like a conflicted man losing a battle between his decency and his demons. Nona Hendryx, best know as one-third of the 60's group LaBelle, is a major disappointment as the Acid Queen; she sounds exhausted and has trouble holding onto her notes.
As for Pevec -- who resembles The Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey (who played Tommy in Ken Russell's film version) -- he is a vibrant actor with expressive features and an erotic, pulsating voice. When his frustration flares up, he radiates like an atom bomb about to ignite. He wails; he struts; he prances shirtless in his leisure suits looking like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. When he sings "I'm A Sensation," he isn't kidding.
Director Brian Michael Purcell keeps the action flowing with the help of Brodie Alan Steele's movable set, and choreographer Denise Leitner does some interesting synchronized robotic moves with the chorus, particularly in the beginning of "Pinball Wizard" and "Tommy's Holiday Camp." However, the highly publicized sound gimmick of giving audience members a Bose headset to wear during the entire performance for a "full 3D audio experience" turns out to be a big mistake for several reasons. First, the earphones are heavy and sticky in the already humid theater. More importantly, they isolate the audience, so one cannot hear each other's laughter, applause, or sighs. True, the earphones give off realistic sound effects of war (gun fire, engines blaring) and audible illusions of how people may sound in Tommy's head, but I removed them after 20 minutes and never missed them.
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