While rock operas today seem like a quaint fad of the past, overblown and generally embarrassing, the current tour by The Who is doing quite a lot to shake that notion.
"Quadrophenia," overshadowed for decades by its rock opera predecessor "Tommy," which also subsequently lit lighted up Broadway, is getting the kind of production The Who could never give it in 1973. And instead of becoming a theatrical piece, it's a full-blown concert work, with the emphasis on the music.
It came off gloriously played live in its entirety at the Meadows Music Theatre in Hartford Saturday. Retooled a bit since its debut a year ago in Madison Square Garden, the production makes a rock show made up of unrelated songs now seem almost obsolete.
As retold in a film version in 1979, "Quadrophenia" dwells on the coming of age of a boy during the battles between mods and rockers in the mid-'60s at seaside England. On one hand the peculiarities of the English gang wars (which peripherally involved The Who as Mod house band) may seem too obscure for parochial U.S. audiences; on the other hand, its themes of youthful confusion, disillusion and rage is universal.
In the current swing, the central character, played by Alex Langdon, narrates the action briefly between songs on an overhead screen, otherwise used for dramatic footage or a big projection of the band. Either way, the work never becomes too theatrical. As the Godfather, an aging rock star, Gary Glitter has been replaced by another old name in rock, P.J. Proby. Ace Face, once played so suitably on stage by Billy Idol, is now performed by Ben Waters.
Nonetheless, the focus is on the band, as it should be. Pete Townshend lays back playing acoustic rhythm guitar for half the piece, but steps forward for more electric playing for these outdoor shows, even throwing in a few of those windmill moves.
Nobody plays bass like inventive John Entwistle; he got to demonstrate in a solo during "5:15." Nobody played drums like original Who drummer Keith Moon, either; and since his death in 1978, nobody on The Who drumkit has so well invoked his spirit as the current occupant, Zak Starkey, looking more like his famous dad, Ringo.
Lead singer Roger Daltrey, astoundingly, is the oldest one on stage, but looks half his age of 53. He was, however, having some vocal difficulties that prevented him from reaching some notes, especially the transcendent one that ends the climactic "Love, Reign Over Me."
He felt so bad about it that he refused to come out for the encore of a handful of other Who oldies. But before long, he came out to help Townshend on "Won't Get Fooled Again." It was followed by fine versions of "Behind Blue Eyes," "Substitute," "Can't Explain" and "Who Are You."
Like the reckless Who of yore, Daltrey didn't care if the following night's show would suffer for his encore singing. He was living in the moment.
And what a triumphant moment it was.