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Tommy Makes Good

Tommy
Boy in a Time Bubble: Young Tommy (Sarah Bylsma) gets the roll-around from the Acid Queen (Natalie Dawn Oliver).

Photo by David M. Allen



Pete Townshend puts a
happy face on rock opera

By Anne Gelhaus

PROPELLED BY incredible sets, eye-popping costumes and Pete Townshend's kick-ass score, the rock opera Tommy as staged by the American Musical Theatre of San Jose is a visual and aural sensation. All that really holds it back are the changes Townshend and Des McAnuff made in the storyline when they took the show to Broadway four years ago.

They kept intact the basic idea of the Who's original 1969 concept album: An autistic pinball savant recovers his senses, gains celebrity, then falls from grace. But rather than being rejected by a public tired of his Messiah complex, Tommy now loses face after confessing to his fans that he really has nothing to teach them.

This revelation segues into a dreadfully happy ending in which Tommy kisses and makes up with his parents. It's all very sappy, very cynical and very '90s, which is a problem in a show otherwise rooted in '60s ideals.

Townshend's music has stood the test of time, and AMT musical director Jeff Rizzo keeps his eight musicians--most of whom are plugged in--tight and energetic. The ensemble features some amazing singers (there's hardly any spoken dialog), particularly Ray Benson as Capt. Walker, Tommy's dad, and Glenn Sneed as Uncle Ernie.

Natalie Dawn Oliver delivers the expected show-stopper as the Acid Queen; not only her vocals but also her fishnet evening dress and Heat Miser fright wig convey her character's seductive danger. And Randy Wojcik, who also choreographed the show's memorable dance numbers, is a breath of dark comic relief as the bullying Cousin Kevin.

John Gates Jr. and Sarah Bylsma, who play the 4-year-old and 10-year-old Tommy, respectively, are good in parts that require them to stand stock-still for long periods of time--one of the hardest things for young children to do. As the adult Tommy, Walter Winston O'Neil is often flown in on wires, which makes for some impressive entrances and exits (even when his handlers smash him into the scenery, as they did several times on opening night). But this physical bravery doesn't translate into his singing, which is strained by his affected British accent.

Technical difficulties aside, John B. Wilson's set designs are not only visually exciting but extremely effective at conveying the warped reality Tommy experiences. And Beaver Bauer's colorful costumes nicely track 20 years' worth of fashion, from WWII-era London to the time of mop tops and mods. It's too bad Townshend couldn't have kept his story within the same time frame; it would have aged well.


The Who's Tommy plays Wednesday­Thursday at 8pm, Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2 and 8:30pm and Sunday at 2 (Feb. 2 only) and 7pm through Feb. 2 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $28­$48. (408/453-7108)

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro

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