"Tommy," the Who's classic rock opera, is 35 years old, and from the look of things onstage at Studio Theatre, it's ready for early retirement. The atmosphere of Keith Alan Baker's constipated production for Studio's Secondstage company is so stately you get the feeling the cast has come to lay Pete Townshend's music to rest, not to celebrate it.
Baker's stripped-down revival is a galaxy or two removed from the assault-on-the-senses, light-show version that pulsated on Broadway a decade ago. This spare approach is a momentarily arresting choice, but ultimately no sale. You can see now why all the smoke and mirrors and bells and whistles were manufactured for Broadway. Though Townshend's hummable score, born in 1969 in rock album form, remains a powerful element, the story is not exactly a heart-stopper.
The familiar words and melodies -- "It's a boy, Mrs. Walker, it's a boy"; "Fi-i-i-i-iddle about! Fiddle about!" -- waft through the theater pleasantly, thanks to the cast of engaging young vocalists Baker has assembled. Still, they have a devil of a time trying to shake "Tommy" awake. The staging is only slightly more lively than what you find in a concert version. Jeanne Feeney's idea of choreography is to have the singers stand on raised platforms and sway at half-tempo. And costume designer Franklin Labovitz decided to dress the members of the chorus as if they'd all been given gift certificates for Banana Republic; what the fashion statement engenders is the sterility of a window display at the mall.
Shouldn't a rock opera, well, rock? Occasionally this "Tommy" does emerge from its coma. The audience owes a huge debt to one performer, Jeffrey L. Peterson, who plugs into Townshend's current. Peterson portrays the fiendish Cousin Kevin and, mercifully, pays a return visit, in spiky hair, to deliver "Pinball Wizard." The energy he brings to his assignments is a godsend. The five-piece band, conducted by Daniel Sticco, is the right size for the hall, and when it is accompanying Peterson, the evening is suddenly a party.
No doubt Baker and the ensemble had their work cut out for them. The thinly plotted, humorless "Tommy" moves episodically through the kind of story that could captivate a 14-year-old holed up in his bedroom with headphones on, but that seems more than a little trite on a stage. After seeing his war hero father kill his mother's lover in front of him, Tommy (Yuval Samburski) is struck deaf, mute and blind. Tommy grows up the town weirdo -- Baker puts him much of the time in a Lucite cage -- and he's treated badly by everyone: tortured by Cousin Kevin, abused by Uncle Ernie (Christopher Gallu), misunderstood by his parents (Maddy Wyatt and Larry Baldine) and desperate for someone to, aw, you know, feel him, touch him, heal him.
The rock-musical requirement of a messianic element is fulfilled when Tommy becomes a pinball champ and, in the style of the virtually contemporaneous "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," attracts an adoring following. All the fuss about Samburski's Tommy, however, is much ado about precious little. Samburski has a pretty voice and, sad to say, that's all there is to the performance. Though the actor projects an exotic, Prince-like serenity, an audience never warms to him. He wears the same glazed expression when Tommy goes blind as he does after Tommy regains his sight. Poor Tommy's one note has been played out by the second or third scene.
A pervasive stiffness ails this ensemble. Why does everyone seem so afraid of letting go? Is it early-in-the-run nerves or a misplaced reverence for the material? Wyatt and Baldine's duets are faultless, but the performances suffer from a dearth of color. Others in the cast range from adequate to downright awkward.
Colin K. Bills's lighting design, whose chief feature is a panel of bulbs that spell out the hero's name, offers a bare minimum of pizazz. It's a relief that the generic abstract set by Giorgos Tsappas does not include a roof. This production could not possibly have raised it.
The Who's Tommy, music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, with additional lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon; book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Music direction, Daniel Sticco; set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Franklin Labovitz; sound, Bridget O'Connor; choreography, Jeanne Feeney. With Justin Benoit, Nazia Chaudhry, Sara Jo Elice, John Guzman, Roseanne Medina, Philip Olarte, Maya Lynne Robinson. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Aug. 8 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.