Auditorium Theatre

In its current incarnation, Tommy is an abomination, a gross perversion of everything it once stood for, and one of the most galling attempts to rewrite history in recent memory.

It seems we’ve spent the last few years trying to deny that anything radical happened during the tumultuous 60s. Once-dangerous counterculture figures are sucked into the mainstream. Woodstock becomes a vehicle to sell cases of Pepsi-Cola emblazoned with Snoopy’s fluffy feathered friend of the same name. Malcolm X is transformed by Hollywood into a safe, peace-loving rebel palatable to any Republican schmo from the ‘burbs. Bob Dylan sings “Masters of War” at West Point, and the cadets give him a standing ovation. William Burroughs shills for Nike; Allen Ginsberg sells khakis; Mick Jagger pimps for Budweiser. But nowhere has this attempt to twist history been more appalling than in the empty pyrotechnic display of theatrical conservatism and historical revisionism now on view at the Auditorium Theatre.

For pure listening pleasure, I’d take the Kinks’ rock opera Preservation or the Who’s own Quadrophenia over the original 1969 recording of Tommy any day. But it was a pure, unadulterated statement of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion seething with the same anger that energized the band’s anthemic “My Generation” as well as later efforts like the bombastic “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Had Enough.” Pete Townshend’s story of a deaf, dumb, and blind young boy who becomes the messianic, pinball-playing leader of a cult fiercely indicted the idolization of religious figures and rock stars as well as the cruel society from which they emerge. To see Roger Daltrey bellow its supremely pissed-off lyrics while Townshend bloodied his hands, attacking his guitar with his patented windmill stroke at Woodstock or in later by-the-books concert tours, was to witness the youthful anger that rock ‘n’ roll does best.

Since the release of 1982’s pallid but listenable It’s Hard and the subsequent breakup of the Who, Townshend has tried to recast himself from reluctant antihero into wise old crank, variously pretending to be F. Scott Fitzgerald or Stephen Sondheim. An unsuccessful stint as a book editor and the release of an embarrassing collection of pseudo-intellectual fiction turned his sights back to musical theater and “concept albums.” In 1989 the Who returned as a glorified lounge act, with orchestral backing that gave the Tommy tunes and other hits a cheesy oldies-but-goodies feel. And in 1993 a new Tommy heavy on the special effects opened on Broadway, wowing (or duping) critics and nabbing five Tony awards.

The current Tommy is a ghoulish inversion of everything the ’69 album represented–despite its history, The Who’s Tommy is probably one of the least daring Broadway shows I’ve seen, a triumph of the gross commercialism it once seemed to rail against. With the proud sponsorship of Oldsmobile, this production turns every bit of antiestablishment philosophy on its head.

By resetting the story of Tommy Walker’s abused childhood and his rise to fame to after World War II instead of World War I, as in the original, and thus plowing into the 60s, Townshend clearly intends to explode the ideals the hippie generation embodied. Gone are the psychedelic, druggie undertones of “Amazing Journey” and “Acid Queen,” which is turned into a peculiar “say no to smack” dance sequence. Gone are the antireligious elements. Townshend and collaborator/desecrator Des McAnuff have carefully excised the line “Don’t want no religion” from “We’re Not Going to Take It.” Where the recently cured Tommy once decried false messiahs with the line “No one had the guts to leave the temple” in “I’m Free,” a kinder, gentler Tommy now sings, “This place is sacred as a temple,” evoking the sanctity of home and the family unit. In the original, cult figure Tommy threw adoring groupie Sally Simpson off the stage; now he saves her from a throng of evil security guards and takes her home to meet mom and dad. “Freedom lies here in normality,” he sings.

The subplot about Tommy’s transformation into a religious leader and his followers’ subsequent rejection of him is entirely perverted. Now, when Tommy sings “Come to this house, into this house,” he isn’t leading his “disciples” (changed to “kids” in the new “Pinball Wizard”) into a peculiar religious enclave, he’s inviting them into his Heathfield Gardens home to sit on the family couch and enjoy tea and crumpets while he tells them just about the same thing Brian told his followers in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “The point is not for you to be more like me. The point is for you to be like you.” Unaccountably, Tommy’s followers reject him for spewing this benign bit of twaddle and stamp their heels, chanting “We’re Not Going to Take It,” conveniently leaving out the line “We forsake you, gonna rape you.” That classic cry of alienated youth “See Me, Feel Me,” which had an undercurrent of sexual and religious fervor when Daltrey sang it, has been turned into a saccharine “Barney” tune for the four-year-old Tommy.

Whether you find these changes morally repugnant or refreshingly puritanical, they just don’t make sense. You can’t simply change a few lines here and there, whip up a couple of new scenes, and expect the complete alteration in a work’s meaning to seem logical. And it’s odd, to say the least, to change the story of a boy who witnesses a murder, is sexually and physically abused by his relatives, and starts a commune into an endorsement of family values. This show does not have the feel of a score that’s been rethought and set into a coherent narrative. Rather it seems that a bunch of scenes have been slapped together around Townshend’s songs, and every objectionable plot element has been removed to suit the widest possible audience and make the quickest possible buck–this is fodder for the tour-bus crowd. The effect is bizarre, like watching the original Tommy dubbed for a convention of Bible thumpers.

In place of thematic integrity Townshend and director McAnuff have provided an eye-popping panorama of visual effects and dance numbers performed to a score that isn’t so much rock ‘n’ roll as show tunes cranked up loud and played fast to a thumping bass line. The result is a feast for the eyes and famine for the brain. “Sensation,” about Tommy’s newfound pinball wizardry, is performed by a group of arcade toughs as a finger-snapping ballet, a pale imitation of Bye Bye Birdie or West Side Story. “Pinball Wizard” is sung rockabilly style by a pair of crouching, crooning goofs a la Jerry Lee Lewis. The choreography for a squadron of billy-club-wielding security guards in “Sally Simpson” is reminiscent of the hilarious “prisoners of love” jail-house dance in Mel Brooks’s The Producers.

The much-ballyhooed exploding pinball machine, which won the frenzied applause of the opening-night crowd, won’t impress anyone who’s seen a home run at Comiskey Park set off the scoreboard. Most hilariously, the vital scene in which Tommy’s mother breaks his mirror and ignites his senses is unconvincingly pantomimed. So it’s come to this: Pete Townshend, who spent his youth smashing up guitars and sound equipment, won’t have a mirror breaking onstage, either because it costs too much to replace night after night or because it’s bad luck.

Rock is dead. Long live schlock.