Tommy, the Who‘s ground breaking 1969 rock opera, has been many things to many people – a classic rock album, an over-the-top 1975 Ken Russell feature film, a popular performance piece for the band, even a dance by the Royal Canadian Ballet. Now, at age twenty-three, Tommy has grown up beautifully into a potent and impressive piece of modern musical theater. The current La Jolla Playhouse production of Tommy – written and composed by Pete Townshend and adapted for the stage by Townshend and Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff – is an ingenious and visually smashing telling of the familiar tale of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who is taken for the new messiah.
The three surviving Who members – Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle – all attended the July 9th opening of the show, a benefit, appropriately enough, for the London-based Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation, which provides help for autistic and retarded children. Townshend worked closely with McAnuff, the playhouse’s artistic director, and even flew in to California from London for the final rehearsals.
The La Jolla production stays quite true to the story on the album and features some compelling performances from the cast of twenty-two actors, singers and dancers, most notably the sensitive work of Michael Cerveris as the title character. Musical director Joseph Church has assembled a fine seven-piece band, with drummer Luther Rix even contributing some powerful Keith Moon-like bashing from the orchestra pit.
Tommy – which is being performed in the playhouse’s 492-seat Mandell Weiss Theater – has had its run extended through September 13th. Future plans for the play are tentative, though a Broadway production seems likely and, considering the show’s quality, advisable.
Meanwhile, Daltrey – in town to promote his new solo album, Rocks in the Head – said that conversations were ongoing with the Who members about reuniting, possibly for a thirtieth-anniversary tour. “Believe me, I’m working on it,” says Daltrey. “I think we’d have to do everything properly – make a new album, do a tour. But we’re talking. We’ll be back.”
This story is from the September 3rd, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.