“Tommy,” can you hear me? You’ve worn out your welcome. What was groundbreaking as a “rock opera” in 1969 and mildly interesting as a world-premiere stage musical at La Jolla Playhouse in 1992 (never mind the trashy Ken Russell-directed film in 1975) is now as creaky as an old pinball machine. Whatever daring that The Who’s mythical story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy flashed at the end of the ‘60s faded decades ago. And the narrative changes made when the album was initially transformed for the stage – changes that softened and mainstreamed “Tommy” –resulted in what became rather a bore. This is no direct reflection on Moonlight Stage Company’s well-intentioned, season-closing production of The Who’s Tommy, which rings all the buzzers and bells. But try as the able cast directed by John Vaughan does, it can’t resurrect an excitement and energy that existed more than a generation ago.
There’s such a joyous, fresh-scrubbed look to this production that it feels like “The Cast of ‘Glee’ Does ‘Tommy.’” While the bullying of Cousin Kevin (Mark Bartlett) and predatory abuse of Uncle Ernie (Paul Morgavo) have the requisite repellance, this ensemble’s Acid Queen (Anise Ritchie) isn’t very menacing. Eddie Egan is all sincerity as Tommy, but he never seems much like a rebel or false God. Like all of Moonlight’s summer of 2013 musicals, The Who’s Tommy’s choreography is crackerjack. Musicians conducted by Dr. Terry O’Donnell are faithful to Pete Townshend’s score, which after 44 years is, regrettably, uninvolving. The music of The Who in general smacks of another time long past, today as canned as classic rock radio. Does it seem possible that Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon were once considered proto-punks by a discerning intelligentsia?
It’s a shame that The Who’s Tommy is the closer of what has been an otherwise delightful summer at Moonlight, highlighted by a rollicking production of Young Frankenstein. Better to remember this summer under the stars by a “mad” scientist and a monster singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” than by a rock-culture relic that, let’s face it, should have been left alone as one of the great albums of all time.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.