Reviews

The Who’s Tommy ****

By: David Sheward

April 5, 2024: Technology and the political zeitgeist have caught up with The Who’s Tommy, rendering the rock opera even more timely than during its initial release. The new revival, at the Nederlander after a hit run in Chicago, is a dazzling spectacle, a combination thrill ride, rock concert and social commentary with a breakout performance by super soulful and sexy newcomer Ali Louis Bourzgui in the title role.

Bobby Conte (Cousin Kevin).

By: David Sheward

April 5, 2024: Technology and the political zeitgeist have caught up with The Who’s Tommy, rendering the rock opera even more timely than during its initial release. The new revival, at the Nederlander after a hit run in Chicago, is a dazzling spectacle, a combination thrill ride, rock concert and social commentary with a breakout performance by super soulful and sexy newcomer Ali Louis Bourzgui in the title role.

John Ambrosino (Uncle Ernie ), Bobby Conte (Cousin Kevin), Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy), Alison Luff (Mrs.Walker), Adam Jacobs (Captain Walker )and the company of The Who’s Tommy.

The rock opera began life as a concept album from The Who, released in 1969. Ken Russell put his bizarre, over-the-top stamp on the material in a 1975 film. Then Des McAnuff collaborated with legendary Who band member Pete Townshend who wrote the dynamic score, to bring Tommy to the Broadway stage in 1993 where it ran for 899 performances. (McAnuff directed and co-wrote the book with Townshend.) In its various iterations, Tommy captures a sense of alienation and the seductive allure of cults and populism, plus Townshend’s shattering music and lyrics wrap around you, evoking universal passions and the need to belong. Tommy’s simple cry of “See me/Feel me/Touch me/Heal me” resonates with an aching pain.

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

The storyline serves as a metaphor for youthful angst and adolescent exploration of the psyche. The opera initially focuses on Tommy’s parents who meet during World War II. Tommy’s dad is missing in action for several years and presumed dead. The title lad becomes psychosomatically deaf, mute and blind when he witnesses his returning father kill his mother’s new lover and is told that he (the boy) didn’t see or hear anything. He takes their advise literally and disassociates from the outside world. After a childhood of physical and sexual torture at the hands of abusive relatives, Tommy discovers he can play pinball like a wizard (leading to the famous song.) Into the early 1960s, Tommy becomes a cult religious leader, after regaining his senses. But when he tells his followers he wants to be “normal” like them, they desert him. The plot crystallized the rage and anger of the hippie youth movement.

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy).

Now McAnuff returns to the work and finds contemporary relevance in Tommy’s isolation. Kids addicted to their phones and video games parallel Tommy’s zoned-out fans who don masks and earmuffs to simulate his cut-off state. In his fluid and rapid staging, McAnuff employs the inventively versatile set by David Korins, the stark lighting of Amanda Sieve, and the shape and time-shifting projections of Peter Nigrini to bring Tommy into the 21st century. Video projections add a dimension of alienation as Tommy becomes the object of mass adulation and mass media. In addition, McAnuff has chorus members dressed in black and wearing fencing masks, similar to performers in Japanese Noh theater, to shift scenes and manipulate Tommy as if he’s flying. The populist angle of Townshend’s story takes on a contemporary feel with movements centering on demagogic individuals such as Trump, Orban, and LePen claiming to solve society’s ills. Costume designer Sarafina Bush outfits Tommy’s guards (his creepy cousin Kevin among them) like Nazi storm troopers, evoking the danger of cult personalities. Her additional costumes capture the period and characterizations. Gareth Owen’s sound design achieves just the right degree of rock-concert loudness without splitting ears. Lorin Latarro’s sizzling choreography adds to the excitement.

Christina Sajous (Acid Queen).

Bourzgui is a stunning addition to the Broadway scene. His deep, rich rock voice, not unlike that of a young Tom Jones, oozes sensuality and imparts Tommy’s desperate need to connect. Alison Luff and Adam Jacobs convey the conflict and pain of Tommy’s parents. John Ambrosino portrays the depraved Uncle Ernie who molested the young Tommy with more than just sinister intent. He also limns the sick man’s torment over his compulsion. Bobby Conte is a charismatically vicious Cousin Kevin and Christina Sajous steals the show as a cat-like Acid Queen with a feline growl and tiger-like dance moves. Haley Gustafson is a sympathetic Tommy fan who sparks his transformation. At the performance attended, Cecila Popp and Quinten Kusheba ably played Tommy at younger ages. As the Acid Queen sings, for devotees or newcomers, this Tommy will tear your soul apart.

The Who’s Tommy ****
Opened March 28 for an open run at the Nederlander Theater, 208 W. 41st St., NYC. Running time: one hour and 51 mins. including intermission. broadwaydirect.com
Photography: MatthewMurphy and Evan Zimmerman

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy) and the ensemble of The Who’s Tommy.