Desert Stage's Tommy Makes Us Wish We Were Deaf, Dumb, and Blind

When I was 13 years old, I had very long hair and braces. I was skinny and effeminate and favored garish clothing. My brother David, who was forever trying to wean me off the bubblegum music I preferred, took me to see the new movie version of The Who's rock opera Tommy. The next day at school, one of David's classmates said to him, "I saw you at the movie theater yesterday. Who was that ugly girl you were with?"

Believe it or not, this is perhaps my favorite childhood memory. I am including it here because remembering it is the only pleasant thing that came of my having seen Desert Stages Theatre's current — and perfectly terrible — production of Tommy earlier this week.

This is a bush-league Tommy, sung and performed by people who have clearly never listened to a rock 'n' roll record; people who have been directed less as performers than as stagehands, who spend more time schlepping scenery than they do acting or singing. Director Terry Helland (who also attempts to perform one of the leads here) has abandoned any attempt to tell Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff's story about the deaf, dumb, and blind kid who becomes a post-Blitz messiah, and has instead opted to employ his colossal cast — most of whom are tone-deaf teenagers — in a marathon of scenic changes. Which is just as well, because the performers are utterly passionless and, when they do stop carrying tables and wheeling in door frames and actually perform, they offer only bum notes and wobbly jazz hands.

The live band sounds like a badly tuned synthesizer, and the players, unaware that they are appearing in a dark drug culture epic about scummy people having aberrant sex, are relentlessly cheerful. The result is less like the bitter, tatty tale of consumption that Townshend and company intended, and more like an especially chaotic Up with People audition.

Particularly grating is Stephen Pare, whose toothsome Tommy is a Pepsodent commercial come to life. He was clearly cast for his resemblance to a young Roger Daltrey and not for his ability to convey any emotion other than glee. His super-cheerful "I'm a Sensation" is performed without any grit or swagger, as if Pare were channeling both Donny and Marie. When Tommy was liberated from his life as a mute and began regaling us with Tiger Beat-worthy crooning, all I wanted was for him to return to the quiet exile of his big gilt mirror.

Marisa Peck, as Tommy's beleaguered mother, appears to have wandered in from a production of Fiddler on the Roof and, while I very much enjoyed her performance as Hodel, it didn't belong here.

The only thing more confusing than why Desert Stages wanted to produce this show in the first place is why there were so many grannies in attendance last Saturday. The room full of mortified septuagenarians never stirred once, either to applaud or pass out, proving, I guess, that not even grandmothers are fooled by a sleazy rock opera masquerading as an uptight Dentyne ad.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela