I couldn't go a week in high school without seeing one of those orange The Who's Tommy T-shirts. In the early '90s, songwriter Pete Townshend and his co–book writer Des McAnuff turned Townshend's legendary album into a breakthrough convergence of Broadway musical, classic rock and Baby Boomer nostalgia. Plus the overture and songs like “Sensation” and “Pinball Wizard” were super-catchy. We all loved it, right?
But it's easy to forget how much of a drag the story is, especially when removed from McAnuff's flashy Broadway production and placed in the more modest confines of East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater.
Director Snehal Desai, smartly, does his best to try to heighten the action to help highlight the story's absurdity, such as adding toy soldiers parachuting from the sky. And while the Broadway version shifted the action from post–World War I to post–World War II, presumably to line up with theatergoers' life experience (the song “1921” became “Twenty-One,” the age of Tommy's mother, Mrs. Walker), this production shifts another generation, to post-Vietnam. (“We've won” is sung not by Captain Walker, Tommy's dad, but his POW captors.)
The opening plot machinations and the traumatic experience that causes Tommy to become “deaf, dumb and blind” feel overstuffed and clunky. As characters keep trying pseudo-psychological cures for Tommy's mysterious affliction well into the second act, I kept longing for more scenes about pinball — Townshend's allegory for rock stardom — and even Tommy's condescending friends, who in this version, rather charmingly, were early-1980s club kids.
The production is nonchalant in its use of an Asian and multiracial cast — the story seems to be simply set in an Asian community in England (though British accents fade in and out). It adds a few fun cultural touches, like the Acid Queen has a fan and her pimp wears a sparkling kimono.
In the end, only a couple moments really lift you into the action, such as “Pinball Wizard,” which despite its ubiquity is impossible to resist, especially when the cast rushes into the audience to dance and sing around you.
East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; through June 7. (213) 625-7000, eastwestplayers.org.