It could have been, so easily, Cheez Whiz. But The Who's Tommy, now playing at the Buell Theatre, has evolved into a brawny rock hymn to reconciliation. "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me" is not so much the solipsistic demand of invisible youth it originally was but rather an affirmation of recovery and brotherhood. If that sounds new-age, well, it is--yet bearable because it never feels like proselytizing.
The opening sequence dazzles with images of the Forties--the war as it was fought in England. A young couple, a paratrooper and his girl, dance a stylized boogie-woogie (to the Who's beat). They marry. Captain Walker goes off to war, parachuting behind German lines. His bride is informed he is missing in action--all this with barely a word spoken and nary a song sung. The whole scene moves as fast as movie editing, and it's much more clever. Lights, rear-screen projections and instant flying sets that move into place with easy grace create a visual stream of consciousness to the pounding score. Though we feel the passage of time and history, we experience it as a dream.
Tommy is four before his father is liberated from a POW camp. Meanwhile, thinking her husband dead, Mrs. Walker has taken a lover. When Captain Walker returns, the lover tries to attack him, and Walker shoots him. The trauma of witnessing the killing freezes Tommy in the clutches of autism. The kid stops hearing, speaking and seeing, gazing only at his own reflection in the mirror. Again the surrealistic images projected in giant forms against a back screen illuminate Tommy's psychological state. Symbols of power dissolve in expressionistic abstractions. Yet the child does hear, see and feel what goes on around him.
As Tommy grows, his spirit (already grown-up and dressed in white like the child) tries unsuccessfully to escape. He is abused by caregivers, and the abuse keeps him trapped. But Tommy has a secret gift: Placed before a pinball machine, he wins again and again. It is his one link to the outside world, and he learns from the flashing lights and the skill in his fingers. Then one day, as his parents are beginning to give up on him, his mother breaks the mirror into which he gazes, and Tommy is freed--at least from his autism. He rejects his family but becomes an instant hero; everyone wants him to tell them how to live their lives. When he refuses, the masses turn on him. He has to find another kind of deliverance: forgiving his family.
Pete Townshend's musical is not really about autism but about the thousands of abused and traumatized youngsters who turn inward to escape the horrors of the outside world. And it is not about a pinball wizard but about anyone who rises to fame on the strength of a limited skill (like a rock singer or a movie star) and is then expected to fulfill the role of pop messiah as well. There's a parable in here somewhere about how society uses celebrities.
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As long as you don't expect too much out of it, Tommy is a good piece of theater. The music is inherently shallow but still moving. It stands up after all these years and has even mutated into something more life-affirming than its original form. If anything, Tommy has grown up to become an antidote to the cowardly nihilism of today's pop culture. The performers (most notably, Jason Workman as Tommy), the sparkling effects and the heart-throbbing rhythms are terrific, but they hardly matter. No, what matters here is what lies behind Townshend's music: a spark of human decency.