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
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.

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

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