Somewhere between arousal and a prayer, between raw blues and high opera: Pete Townshend's insistent, accelerating intro to "Pinball Wizard" is seven bars of the most exhilarating rock ever made.
That ecstatic sense of liberation drives "The Who's Tommy," Townshend and Des McAnuff's theatrical adaptation of the band's 1969 concept album, now at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood. That deaf, dumb, blind kid is back, and his hit list -- "I'm Free," "Pinball Wizard" and the sublime "See Me, Feel Me" -- sounds better than ever.
The big to-do of this production is its use of high-definition 3-D Sound, a new audio system designed by James Johnson. When you find your seat, a Bose headset is waiting. These headsets receive a mix unique to each night's performance: the sound produced by the live actors and musicians in the moment, and recorded cues -- a parachute drop during a World War II air mission, or an eerie distortion of a wolf cry, played when creepy Uncle Ernie (Hank Adams) is on the prowl.
It seems like a contradiction to go to a live event and put on headphones, but the experience neither makes nor breaks the evening. There are moments when the wall of sound effects makes for a dazzling head trip, others when it disconnects you from the actors on stage. But why not experiment with a classic that thumbed its nose at the rules?
Ken Russell's tripped-out 1975 film didn't exactly follow Syd Field's screenwriting rules, and the subsequent stage adaptation abbreviates the narrative to a visual haiku. The result has the feel of a parable: inexorable but without much psychological shading.
The first 20 minutes pantomime the back story, played out on Brodie Alan Steele's multitiered gothic set. We're in England, 1940, and Capt. Walker (Tom Schmid) meets his future bride (Alice Ripley) at a dance. He's soon off fighting the Nazis and ends up missing and presumed dead. Raising their son on her own, Mrs. Walker takes a lover (Doug Crawford). As they're celebrating her 21st birthday, Walker appears at the door. Blood is spilled. Tommy, a stunned witness, withdraws into his head.
The violence that precipitates Tommy's shutdown should be brutal, shocking, even erotic. Yet the murder feels like a pre-show fight call, when actors mark their blocking as a warmup to the big onstage event. The moment should resonate through the show -- but it doesn't.
It's tricky when a rock opera's protagonist spends the first half of the show catatonic, and only after intermission does the production come to dramatic life. (The orchestra, led by Dan Redfeld, is excellent.)
Director Brian Michael Purcell has assembled a strong cast, but its talent often seems overwhelmed by the soundscape. Ripley, who captivated last year in the Blank Theatre's "Little Fish," looks stranded here, her wide eyes in search of an actual scene. Schmid's pensive Capt. Walker fares a little better, but you wish they both had more to sing.
Celebrated funk musicians Nona Hendryx and Ronny Drayton turn up as the Acid Queen and Hawker, but Purcell doesn't give the scene much juice. Jenna Leigh Green affectingly conveys groupie Sally Simpson's vulnerability.
The show really has only one character: little Tommy, still as a statue until he breaks his mirror and spell of silence. We see him at age 4 (L.J. Benet), 10 (Lorenzo Doryon) and then as a teen (Aleks Pevec). Lean, athletic, with a mop of Roger Daltrey-esque curls, Pevec focuses the show, letting the music drive his physicality.
It's in Pevec's pinball scenes that Purcell and choreographer Denise Leitner really find their groove. Tommy's fans morph into an ecstatic collective in the face of their messiah's power, and the whole thing kicks into unbridled life.
We finally see what Tommy, rock 'n' roll and good theater can do -- collapse the boundaries between self and other, pain and release, fury and exultation. Listening to him, we get the music. From him, we feel the story. Headsets are a fine accessory, but what takes you to the mountain is the Who's immortal music, so good that every generation knows it was written just for us.
'The Who's Tommy' Where: Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, 1615 Vine St., HollywoodWhen: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. SundayEnds: SundayPrice: $50 to $75Contact: (323) 461-0663Running time: 2 hoursCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun