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Townshend's Tommy returns to Boston with fine staging

Tommy (Steve Isaacs) is surrounded by his new followers after they discover his gift as a "Pinball Wizard" in The Who's Tommy, written by Pete Townshend, and playing at the Wang Center.

The Who's Tommy

Directed by Des McAnuff.

Music by Pete Townshend.

Book and Lyrics by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff.

Wang Center, Nov. 9-20.

By Kai Tao

Tommy triumphantly returned to Boston last Wednesday, opening to a sellout crowd at the Wang Center. Unlike last year's production at the Colonial Theater, which was plagued with technical problems and computer crashes, the Wang Center's larger stage helped ease the complicated production requirements.

What appeared to be seamless scene changes involved 27 slide projectors illuminating a 30-foot wide screen, 13 personal computers used to control video projections, and over 20 tons of scenery and equipment. With rocking songs such as "Pinball Wizard" and "I'm Free," the speakers overwhelmed the audience with a pounding, thunderous bass.

Based on Pete Townshend's famous 25-year-old rock opera, Tommy tells the story of Tommy Walker, a young boy growing up in Post-World War II England. Upon seeing his father kill his mother's lover, Tommy becomes dumb, blind, and mute, irreversibly traumatized by the experience. As his mother and father struggle to find a means to cure him, Tommy gets abused by both his Uncle Ernie, and his Cousin Kevin, who unwittingly introduces him to pinball. Through the pinball machine, Tommy discovers his hidden talent as he gains both fame and fortune, in breaking the records for the highest pinball scores.

Miraculously, Tommy becomes cured, as he gains "rock star" status. Eventually, Tommy is overwhelmed by all this fame and fortune, and turns his back against his fans, longingly to return to a normal life.

The traumatized young Tommy is played by siblings Rachel Beth Levenson, and Brett Levenson, who are the innocent four-year-old Tommy, and ten-year-old Tommy respectively. Miss Levenson, at only eight years of age, demonstrates both cuteness and talent, giving rise to a promising career ahead, while her brother Brett amazed everyone with his ability to be picked up and "thrown" about from cast member to cast member as if he was a bouncing ball.

The adult Tommy, played by Steve Isaacs, lacked the raw power of Roger Daltrey, whose portrayal in Ken Russell's movie version of Tommy, defined in many ways the angers and emotions of the Woodstock Generation, whereas Tommy's oppressors, the drunken Uncle Ernie, played by Stephen Anderson, and Cousin Eddie, played by Michael Arnold, were quite comedic, making the audience forget that they were the "bad guys."

As a fan of the original Tommy performed by the Who, I was quite doubtful that the same story could effectively be produced as a "Broadway-type" musical. After all, the Who was a rock and roll band known for their pounding chords and bass notes.

With no mistake, the musical Tommy is a rock and roll performance of the highest caliber. Musical director Wendy Bobbitt ably conducted the band, which featured the talents of guitarist Scott Totten and former Rod Stewart/David Bowie drummer Alan Childs. Despite the Wang's notoriety for poor acoustics, the energy and sound of the band, coupled with the giant television screens , made the performance viewable from any direction.

I highly recommend this musical for anyone who wants to lose oneself into a whirlwind of music and imagery for a few hours.