Reviews

The Who’s Tommy ****1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 5, 2024: As theatregoing experiences go, waiting in line for the Nederlander Theatre to open for The Who’s Tommy at the April 2 matinee definitely ranks at the bottom. The weather, as you may be well aware, couldn’t have been nastier: freezing cold and hard, incessant rain. Worse, instead of opening the doors at 1:30 PM, as typical, the management didn’t do so until 1:54 PM, six minutes before the scheduled 2:00 curtain time. Something was clearly wrong, but no one bothered to let us know it as we shivered in the long line snaking down W. 41th Street. 

Alison Luff (Mrs.Walker), Olive Ross -Kline (Tommy, Age 4), and Adam Jacobs (CaptaIn Walker).

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 5, 2024: As theatregoing experiences go, waiting in line for the Nederlander Theatre to open for The Who’s Tommy at the April 2 matinee definitely ranks at the bottom. The weather, as you may be well aware, couldn’t have been nastier: freezing cold and hard, incessant rain. Worse, instead of opening the doors at 1:30 PM, as typical, the management didn’t do so until 1:54 PM, six minutes before the scheduled 2:00 curtain time. Something was clearly wrong, but no one bothered to let us know it as we shivered in the long line snaking down W. 41th Street. 

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy).

Once the bulk of the audience finally had entered and taken its seats in the chilly venue, an announcement was made at 2:17 PM informing us that a backstage problem meant the curtain wouldn’t rise until perhaps 2:30 PM. A sigh of disappointed resignation swept across the auditorium from the over 1,000 patient patrons. Finally, at 2:28 PM, the houselights dimmed, the stage lights came on, and BAM! all discomforts were forgiven and forgotten as this remarkable revival of The Who’s Tommy blasted off into the rock musical stratosphere.

Restaged last year for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre by the original director, Des McAnuff, of its original 1993 production, which won five Tonys and piled up a decent but unspectacular 889 performances, Tommy (as I’ll call it) has arrived on Broadway. It’s a marvel of heart-thumping, beat-pumping, melodically memorable rock, inspired by a frequently ambiguous 1969 rock opera double album by The Who, with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, who recently admitted that it reflects his own childhood experiences of being sexually abused and bullied.

John Ambrosino (Uncle Ernie).

The show’s book, which dramatizes the narrative, consisting only of lyrics, with just a smidgen of dialogue, is the work of Townshend and McAnuff; additional music is credited to John Entwistle and Sonny Boy Williamson II. In a way, its need for a story to be woven into dance from its sung lyrics is reminiscent of the even more abstruse Illinoise, soon opening on Broadway. In a Times interview, Townshend says that he created Tommy “to explain the human condition with respect to its spiritual potential, which is that we’re deaf, dumb and blind to our spiritual side. It was a metaphor.” If that’s your takeaway from the show, so be it.

Living through Tommy’s late 20th-century period of worldwide popularity, I was unavoidably familiar only with those songs I heard on the radio—like “See Me, Feel Me,” “Acid Queen,” and “Pinball Wizard”—but, while I know people who survived their youth on Tommy, it remained peripheral to me. I knew only pieces of its basic story, in which the mature Tommy sometimes narrates alongside his younger selves. For those who’d like a refresher, especially given the differences between the album, film, and stage versions, here’s a greatly boiled down one of the latter. 

Christina Sajous (Acid Queen).

It begins in 1941 London, when the pregnant Mrs. Walker (Alison Luff, Waitress, terrific) sees her husband, Capt. Walker (a marvelous Adam Jacobs, Aladdin) off to war; she gives birth to a boy named Tommy and, after learning that Walker has been killed in action, takes up with a lover (Nathan Lucrezio). Walker, though, survives, walks in on the affair, and shoots the lover, traumatizing four-year-old Tommy (Cecilia Ann Popp at the performance I attended). When his parents insist he saw and heard nothing, he becomes blind, deaf, and dumb. 

The Walkers seek help for their son, including taking him to doctors, a whorish drug dealer called the Gypsy (a dynamic Christina Soujas, striving to out-cyclone the movie’s Tina Turner), and a psychiatrist (Lily Kren). When left with unreliable babysitters, he’s sexually abused by the pedophiliac Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino, creepy) and taken to a youth center by sadistic Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte, outstanding). The teenage Tommy (Ali Louis Bourzgui, in a smashing Broadway debut) finds himself to be a pinball master, idolized by the locals. Eventually, Tommy, after the frustrated Mrs. Walker smashes a mirror (a magically lit prop that plays a central role), regains his senses, a miracle that leads to his near deification by the masses who turn out for his public appearances. 

The company of THE WHO’S TOMMY.

Circumstances stemming from what happens to a teenage female fan, Sally Simpson (Haley Gustafson), however, lead him to step back from his celebrity idolatry. However, not wishing to disturb his fans, he invites them all home, regardless of how many there are. When they realize he can never be the savior they’re seeking, they reject him, and he returns to the bosom of the family his fame has caused him to neglect.

Seeing Tommy now, in my 80s, in the company of my 60-year-old daughter, a longtime fan of the album, revealed the joy I’d been missing, especially in light of my having recently viewed Ken Russell’s generally acclaimed 1975 movie version. Russell’s film is a wildly imaginative cinematic romp, but it’s also messy, distressingly bloated, often incoherent, seriously bizarre, and occasionally ugly; see, for example, Ann-Margaret sloshing about in torrents of God-knows-what yuck as she nestles a huge, phallic pillow between her thighs. In addition to changes in the narrative (most egregiously, the husband dies and the lover takes on the paternal role, as happens on the original album), it also features two nonmusical stars beyond their musical depths. That’s something that simply doesn’t apply to the altogether sensational singers in the show.

The stage version makes the story and characters’ motivations much clearer than the movie (although some parts remain opaque or illogical), the music works better for having some of its fat trimmed away, and the action moves along vigorously without multiple distractions. McAnuff’s staging and Lorin Lattaro’s choreography are amazingly crisp and innovative. The score’s balance between ballad-like music, mainly “See Me, Feel Me,” and loud, hard, soaring rock greatly favors the latter, but once you’re enveloped by the music and mesmerized by the staging, Tommy grabs you and never lets you go, even if its ultimate themes of celebrity, family, and spirituality are on the fuzzy side. 

The company of THE WHO’S TOMMY : Haley Gustafson, Alexandra Matteo, Christina Sajous, Tassy Kirbas, John Ambrosino, Tyler James Eisenreich, Sheldon Henry, Bobby Conte, Mike Cannon, Nathan Lucrezio, Ali Louis Bourzgui, Mark Mitrano, Jeremiah Alsop, Alison Luff, Andrew Tufano, Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr., Adam Jacobs, Lily Kren, Reagan Pender, Aliah James, Daniel Quadrino and Jenna Nicole Schoe.

McAnuff’s conceptual genius is matched moment by moment by the incredible projection designs of Peter Nigrini and the insanely complex lighting of Amanda Zieve, perfectly coordinated with scene designer David Korins’s sleek, modernistic visual abstractions, making great geometric use of straight white lines it’s sometime hard to differentiate from beams of light. Sarafina Bush’s costumes—which occasionally incorporate chrome-like masks—are exquisite blends of period and theatrical elements, and every other production element, like Gareth Owen’s sound, Steve Margoshes’s orchestrations, and Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs and hair designs (the three Tommys have identical curly black locks) couldn’t be better.

What will remain foremost in my memories of The Who’s Tommy is the finale, when the large cast moves downstage to fill the entire space between the proscenium walls as they sing, with ever-ascending passion and power, “See Me, Feel Me” and “Listening to You,” with its repeated lyrics: “Right behind you I see the millions/On you I see the glory/From you I get opinions/From you I get the story/ Listening to you.” Even the cold pervading the Nederlander on April 2 couldn’t prevent a chill going through me.

The Who’s Tommy ****1/2
Nederlander Theatre
208 W. 41st Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: Mathew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman