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`THE WHO’S TOMMY’ IS LOST AT UNIVERSAL AMPHITHEATRE

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Late in the second half of "The Who's Tommy," Tommy tells his disciples not to buy what his greedy handlers have sold them.

But like everything else in the road company's version of the Tony Award-winning show, playing at the much-too-spacious Universal Amphitheatre through mid-August, the sentiment gets a little lost.Instead of overpowering the audience as it has night after night in its Broadway run, this "Tommy" can't hope to fill the vacuum with which the Amphitheatre's size saddles it.

Maybe it's because they figure Los Angeles theatergoers aren't sophisticated enough to know the difference, but "Tommy's" handlers have stuck the musical in a place that might seem intimate for rock acts that might otherwise play basketball arenas or football stadiums. For a play - even with its capacity cut from 6,251 to 3,801 - the Amphitheatre is just too big.

Compared to the Broadway version, this "Tommy" is what the Class-A Bakersfield Dodgers are to the Dodgers who play at Chavez Ravine. You get players performing the same roles in basically the same game, but one is minor league.

Even more galling, at Universal, they're still charging major-league prices - $44 to $64.50 a seat - for an inferior product. And part of why it's an inferior product is that the venue's size demands far more talent from far lesser talents.

Now, if you have never seen the New York version of the show in the relatively compact setting of the St. James Theatre, perhaps you come away from this "Tommy" thinking the kids are all right.

To have seen it on Broadway, however, is to leave Universal disappointed and grumbling about how the producers managed to create the illusion of turning the whole theater into the insides of a pinball machine there, and that they failed miserably to re-create the effect here.

And if your seats are more than halfway back - still nearly $50 a pop with service charges - you can barely tell what's going on. You spend two hours squinting.

The subtlety of the dancing and acting is lost. The power of the songs and the story of an abused child who is embraced by the public for all the wrong reasons but cannot find happiness until he reconciles his past is deadened. Even the video screens that ring the stage in the second act are little help at that distance.

You have a right to expect more.

Steve Isaacs, who gets to play the title role (he's Tommy, not the Who), is probably a nice guy. He can sing a little, too. But his Tommy seems as lost as someone who can't hear, speak or see.

Rather than prowling the stage, ready to pounce, as Michael Cerveris did in the original production in La Jolla and then New York, it's apparently all Isaacs can manage just to hit his marks.

It would be wrong to place too much of the blame on Isaacs, who's really no worse than anyone else in the cast. It's not like he's Faye Dunaway or anything, and any former MTV VJ who somehow manages to find work outside of the infomercial industry deserves credit for showing some initiative.

But either way, your Visa bill takes a hefty hit - and at least what you pay for through an infomercial comes with a money-back guarantee if you're not completely satisfied.

No such luck here.

With a road-company show, they can prey on the notion you don't know any better until it's too late, until they're in San Diego, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia or Washington, where, with luck, they'll play considerably smaller halls.

If "Tommy" teaches us anything, it's that we have to rise up and reject this kind of greed and cynicism.

We're not gonna take it.