The Citiblog

Review: See, Feel and Hear The Who’s Tommy!
March 28, 2024, 11:28.06 pm ET


By Brian Scott Lipton

Feel me. Check. See me. Double check. Hear me. Triple check. Indeed, all the boxes have been checked by the thrillingly visceral and gloriously (and loudly) sung new production of the classic 1969 rock opera “The Who’s Tommy,” now at the Nederlander Theatre.

Taking his second stab at this seminal if tricky material, director Des McAnuff (who won the Tony Award for his first attempt in 1993) has wisely hired some of theater’s smartest wizards (including scenic designer David Korins, projection director Peter Negrini, lighting designer Amanda Zieve and sound designer Gareth Owens) to give the show its unusual look, full of both realistic sets and technological visuals that delight the eye throughout the two-hour, two-act show.

Meanwhile, a superb cast – led by the ultra-charismatic Ali Louis Bourzgui as the “adult” Tommy (in an appropriately “sensational” Broadway debut) -- does full justice to Pete Townshend’s remarkable (and remarkably fresh) score. Still, if you are familiar with the show’s music (either through the original album or Ken Russell’s delirious 1975 movie version), you might need a few seconds to adjust to Bourzgui’s powerful baritenor, as it’s lower and richer than Who singer Roger Daltrey, who first made the role famous.

Conversely, if you’re not at all familiar with “Tommy,” you might want to read all of this review – or at least a Wikipedia synopsis of the show -- before entering the theater (or even buying a ticket). First, not everyone wants to be faced with murder, child abuse (sexual and otherwise), and quasi-religious mania. Second, the one downside of Townshend’s sung-through score, for all its verbal and musical brilliance, is that it doesn’t always connect the dots, making the show’s plot occasionally confusing.

Set from the 1940s until the early 1960s, the show focuses on British lad Tommy (played at my performance by the entrancing Cecilia Ann Popp, and then the excellent Quinten Kusheba, before Bourzgui completely takes over). At age 4, he witnesses his supposedly-dead father Captain Walker (a fine Adam Jacobs) – now rescued from a WWII POW camp -- shoot the current lover of his mother, Mrs. Walker (Alison Luff, providing both strong vocals and an equally strong characterization.)

Being told by his parents that he didn’t hear or see anything, Tommy takes these words quite literally and becomes deaf, dumb and blind, which lasts for another 15 years or so. Unfortunately, that “condition” allows his alcoholic and pedophilic “Uncle” Ernie (a suitably creepy John Ambrosino) all the opportunity he needs to take advantage of the young boy. And if not for the last-minute action of his frustrated, anything-for-a-cure father, Tommy would have been introduced to dangerous drugs by the cat-like Acid Queen (a sinuous Christina Sajous).

Not helping matters, to put it mildly, is his teenage cousin Kevin (a convincing Bobby Conte) – a local hoodlum somehow trusted by the Walkers -- who unthinkingly introduces Tommy to pinball at a local youth center, a game in which his lack of customary senses proves to be a major plus. Overnight, Tommy becomes a “pinball wizard” with zillions of followers (resulting in the show’s most famous song!)

But years later, after Tommy gets his senses back – when his mother smashes the mirror Tommy into which he constantly gazes –he gives up pinball and become a bit of a motivational cult-leader, a position he only relinquishes after a meeting of some sort gets out of control and a young teen named Sally Simpson (Haley Gustafson) gets injured. But ask any would-be messiah, followers can be oh-so-fickle.

Now that you’ve got all that (if you didn’t already), you can fully relish this show’s extraordinary music, including such unforgettable tunes as “I’m Free,” Listening to You,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” all of which stick in your head for days. Moreover, McAnuff’s savvy staging is augmented by Lorin Latarro’s superb choreography, with its feats of athleticism and its military-like precision, beautifully executed by the ensemble.

For some audience members, The Who’s Tommy” is a Broadway variation of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: the perfect combination of two elements -- here, rock music with a semi-traditional musical – that don’t initially seem like they should go together. Personally, I could eat it up over and over.

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