The Who's Tommy

Zach's revival of the rock opera takes its cue from Alice in Wonderland, and while vivid, it lacks consistency

Pinballing down the rabbit hole: Michael Valentine as Tommy
Pinballing down the rabbit hole: Michael Valentine as Tommy (Courtesy of Kirk R. Tuck)

Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
www.zachtheatre.org
Through Aug. 24
Running time: 2 hr.

Dancing girls in striped tights and clown wigs, neon flashing tube lights, big bouncing balls in a crowd – it looks a lot like a rave at the Topfer Theatre ... only with old people. If musical director Allen Robertson had captured the Electric Daisy Carnival sound in Zach Theatre's revival of The Who's Tommy, we'd have been in business. In that case, mature audience members would have found themselves in the grip of a truly updated rock & roll freneticism. It's a fantastic direction, really, considering the central position of psychedelia in this work, but director Dave Steakley simply doesn't take it far enough.

Steakley's nods to Alice in Wonderland are a nice touch, yet the connection between psychedelia and Lewis Carroll's fantasy is hardly new, considering Jefferson Airplane recorded "White Rabbit" two years before Tommy's 1969 debut. Indeed, with this show it's something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue – and every other color of the rainbow. The design palette here is so expansive that it includes everything from striking black and white to Eighties mauve and all points in between. There are a few momentary technical marvels, but this production's Achilles' heel is its neglect in the realm of consistency.

Although fabulous on their own, the superficial elements borrowed from the culture of electronic dance music are the strange bedfellows of an aesthetic that might best be described as straight-up American Cheese. As the adult version of the title character, Michael Valentine, in his golden, fringed jacket, is a picture-perfect Vegas edition of Peter Gallagher's character in 1980's The Idolmaker. Since this film character – inspired by Fifties teen idol Fabian – is largely dismissed as an empty-headed puppet, this seems an odd choice for a character described by librettist Pete Townshend in Rolling Stone as a spiritual seeker.

As a character, Tommy – like his rocked-out brother from Pink Floyd's The Wall – has daddy issues. Also, as anyone who's listened to the radio in the last 40 years knows, he sure plays a mean pinball. As a precursor to today's omnipresent video-game craze, pinball is rife with symbolic possibilities. Although the infinity-mirror effects on the machines here are damned cool, I'm not picking up on any deeper significance of the game as a possible gateway drug.

Speaking of drugs, though, no Seventies-era rock opera would be complete without them. Of course, that makes a convenient explanation for the overwhelming onslaught of colors and stylistic choices here: It's all a fevered, mescaline-fueled dream! It doesn't need to make sense! But isn't that why we have art: to make life more beautiful, rational, and poetic than it otherwise would be? This show is a trip, all right, but for this participant, not an especially good one. Many of my very vocal neighbors in the audience would disagree. Clearly we supped on different sides of the mushroom.

READ MORE
More The Who's Tommy
Age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
For 10 years, Dave Steakley has made Zach Rock - and so much more

Robert Faires, July 12, 2002

Search Through the Skies
Search Through the Skies
That's Where Composer Allen Robertson and the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Are Headed With the New Musical 'Jouét'

Robert Faires, April 6, 2001

More Austin theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
When is violence in theatre too much?

Shanon Weaver, Dec. 9, 2016

Making Room to Play
Making Room to Play
Create Space Austin kicks off the drive to secure more performing venues in the city

Elizabeth Cobbe, April 15, 2016

More Arts Reviews
Rude Mechs' <i>Requiem for Tesla</i>
Rude Mechs' Requiem for Tesla
The Austin theatre collective's biography of inventor Nikola Tesla literally makes sparks fly

T. Lynn Mikeska, Dec. 9, 2016

Street Corner Arts' <i>Constellations</i>
Street Corner Arts' Constellations
The company moves through Nick Payne's play in ways that make its multiple variations quick and fresh

Elizabeth Cobbe, Dec. 9, 2016

More by Stacy Alexander Smith
Exhibitionism
We Play Chekhov: Two Short Stories on Stage
Breaking String's two-course meal of Chekhov tales proves both meaty and effervescent

Aug. 22, 2014

Exhibitionism
Vecinos
Playwright / actor Rupert Reyes pays tribute to his father and the pull of the past in this sweet comic romance

Aug. 15, 2014

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Who's Tommy, Austin theatre, Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Pete Townshend, Michael Valentine

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)