As my companion and I walked into the Greenwich Theater on Friday, I had a sudden pang of terror that only comes with the realization that you’ve missed your show’s start time. The lobby was empty, the box office staff looked bored: but I was sure it started at 7:30! How had I done this? I nervously asked for our tickets and was told that the audience was all in the bar. Really? I’d never seen this kind of aching emptiness at any of my previous visits to this theater. What was going on?
The answer came to me as we walked into the house, which was two thirds empty. I had almost never seen a theater so utterly vacant. However, our lovely seats in the middle of row H were purchased, and neither of us had seen Tommy before (although my companion was a huge fan of the music), so we sat ourselves down …
And discovered that this was not, in fact, the undiscovered hit of the summer. No, this was the low budget, low concept revival of a show of which I can’t help but question the theatrical merits. Let’s think about it: a play about a deaf and blind kid … who plays pinball. Big excitement? Someone standing nearly stock still with their hands, at hip height, sort of slapping the air. This is not entertaining to watch. It was, however, extremely wrenching to see the scenes where he was being tortured by his relatives because of his disabilities … “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” is now rewritten as an extraordinarily sad song for me … but bullying isn’t musical fodder, either. In fact, the entire story of Tommy is just a bit of a disaster and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to put it on stage except as a curiousity. Perhaps what it needed was the ironic “Xanadu the Musical” treatment to really make it come alive.
And it’s worth revisiting this show for the same reason Xanadu needed to live again: the music is just astounding. But, unlike Sunny Afternoon, this production of Tommy did not take the opportunity to blow us out of our chairs with some of the best rock music ever written; no, even Pinball Wizard came off sounding flaccid. I don’t know how they did it, but I suspect they needed one more guitarist and, I don’t know, someone to turn the volume to 11.
The cast worked really hard and I can’t blame them for any of this – they didn’t choreograph it, put themselves in white, and make a religious icon out of a triangle. No, they looked out at a 2/3 empty auditorium and gave us their best, and rightly deserved the enthusiastic applause of the grey haired grans sitting in front of us. I just wish it could have been so much more and not just an underpowered revival of one of the most iconic musicals of the rock age. That much disappointment hurt.
(This review is for a performance that took place on August 14, 2015. It continues for about another week if you’re still interested, maybe until the 22nd or so. )