'Tommy' needs shot of wizardry Review: The cast and the music carry the touring rock opera, but the eye-popping glitz isn't there.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"I'm a sensation," sings the title character in one of the more than two dozen songs in "The Who's Tommy." But the touring production at the Mechanic Theatre is much less of a sensation than the Broadway production that preceded it.

The problem isn't the cast. The talented leads and ensemble, directed by Victoria Bussert, bring vibrancy and enthusiasm to their performances, particularly Michael Seelbach in the title role.

Blessed with teen-idol good looks and a strong, pop-flavored singing voice, Seelbach is both youthful and sexy enough to make Tommy an appealing protagonist. This is no small achievement in a musical -- based on the Who's 1969 album -- whose subject matter is anything but appealing.

Like the rock opera album, which has had incarnations ranging from a ballet to Ken Russell's overblown 1975 movie, the musical tells the story of a little boy who witnesses his father murder his mother's lover. Responding all too literally to his parents' admonition, "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life," Tommy becomes catatonic, making him easy prey for his abusive Uncle Ernie and sadistic Cousin Kevin. And, oh yes, along the way, Tommy inexplicably turns out to be a whiz at pinball, which brings him instant superstardom.

Pinball aside, be warned that this is not material suitable for small children. A family of four made a quick and well-advised retreat on opening night when Peter Connelly's Kevin was sticking cigarettes in the ears of little Matthew Williams, who portrays Tommy at age 10.

For that matter, the primary reason for "Tommy's" classic rock status has to be its resounding, catchy score by the Who's Pete Townshend, with additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Although the plot -- reworked somewhat for the stage by Townshend and the musical's original director, Des McAnuff -- does make a serious statement about the dangers of celebrity, it's still a cold and unpleasant story.

But getting back to pinball, if ever there was a show that cried out for bells and whistles, it's this saga of a pinball wizard. On Broadway, the whole theater seemed to turn into a giant pinball machine at the end of the first act.

The far less sophisticated version at the Mechanic, however, has a different set of designers, though it retains most of Wendall K. Harrington's original projections. But otherwise, Tony Fanning's set designs -- particularly the graffiti-strewn red rear wall -- owe more to a vandalized subway station than to the psychedelic '60s.

So, without the flash and glitz, what's left? Thankfully, the dynamic performances of, in addition to Seelbach as Tommy, Jessica Phillips and Michael J. Vergoth as his parents (who deliver a rousing rendition of the one song written specifically for the musical, "I Believe My Own Eyes"), and Rob Krahenbuhl as creepy Uncle Ernie.

The rest of the cast sings and dances with verve, although Dan Stewart's choppy choreography lacks flair, and Tracey Lee, as the Gypsy, who sings "Acid Queen," does an uninspired imitation of Tina Turner, who played the role in the movie.

There's also an odd textual change in this production. For some reason, the musical now ends with Tommy becoming a rock guitarist. This doesn't seem like the best career choice for someone who hopes to shun the celebrity spotlight, which is supposedly one of the lessons the character has learned. But then, maybe it's just another way of reminding us that the music -- not the story -- is what "The Who's Tommy" is really about.

'The Who's Tommy'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopins Plaza

When: 8 tonight through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission: $32.50 - $52.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

Pub Date: 5/16/96

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