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‘The Who’s Tommy’ Broadway Review: Still A Sensation

Certainly one definition of great music might include an ability to meet the present – and the future – head-on and come out unbruised, even triumphant. By that standard and many more, The Who’s Tommy, opening tonight on Broadway, is thrilling proof that the premiere concept album of 1969 is great music indeed.

Gloriously directed by Des McAnuff and updated by him and composer-lyricist Pete Townshend from their own 1993 original Broadway staging, The Who’s Tommy is a non-stop surge of electrified energy, a darting pinball of a production that syncs visual panache with 55-year-old songs that sound as vital today as they must have at Woodstock. Themes of enlightenment and connection, trauma and recovery, truth and lies (or alternative truths, in someone’s grotesque parlance) and blinkered hero worship feel more relevant in the 21st Century than Townshend could possibly have imagined way back in the waning days of the ’60s.

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With a superb cast headed by Broadway newcomer Ali Louis Bourzgui as Tommy, the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” – most of whatever language less-than-acceptable by today’s standards has been retained – and Alison Luff as his mom Mrs. Walker, Tommy feels less like a stick-to-what-works revival than a top-to-bottom reimagining. Nearly all of it works beautifully.

Neither the music – from “I’m Free,” “See Me, Feel Me,” “Sensation” and “Pinball Wizard” to “Acid Queen,” “Christmas” and “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” – nor the plot has changed much in the last 55 years since the former first grabbed FM radio listeners and the latter baffled stoned hippies hoping to make sense of it (the album didn’t come with instructions).

So, the plot: In a brief preamble set in 1941, British officer Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs) meets and marries the soon-to-be Mrs. Walker (Luff). He returns to battle – chillingly depicted with archival projections and goose-stepping silhouettes of marching Nazis – where he’s captured and sent to a camp while she gives birth to their son Tommy. Presuming her husband dead, Mrs. Walker takes up with a new man (Nathan Lucrezio), only to be shocked when the Captain returns home. A fight leaves the lover dead, and Tommy, who saw it all, traumatized.

<br>Alison Luff, Olive Ross-Kline, Adam Jacobs

Alison Luff, Olive Ross-Kline, Adam Jacobs

“You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it!/You won’t say nothin’ to no one/Ever in your life,” mom and dad sing to the terrified Tommy. To say the least, he takes their admonitions to heart, retreating into himself and endlessly staring into a mirror.

The first act of the musical portrays Tommy at ages 4 and 10 – as well as, less frequently, Bourzgui’s adult Tommy, interacting with them – through various, well, adventures would be a polite way to put it. He’s prayed over (“Christmas”), medically examined (“Sparks”), taken to various drugs & sex dens of iniquity (“Eyesight to the Blind” and “Acid Queen”), tormented by a sadistic cousin (“Cousin Kevin”) and, in “Fiddle About,” left alone with his sexually abusive Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) – no laughing matter in this telling, unlike Ken Russell’s grotesque 1975 film version.

<br>Bobby Conte

Bobby Conte

It’s Cousin Kevin – terrifically played by Bobby Conte – who inadvertently spurs Tommy’s breakthrough, and leads the musical to its show-stopping Act I finale: After some at-home cruelty, he takes his young charge to a local youth community center, where Tommy is mysteriously drawn to a pinball machine. The rest, as they might say, is rock and roll history, as Tommy stuns the hall full of teens with an inexplicable mastery of the electric machine.

Much, of course, is expected of “Pinball Wizard,” one of the most loved songs in The Who catalogue, and in Lorin Latarro’s exuberant, best-of-show choreography, all expectations are met. The teens all but explode in an feverish dance of elation and slack-jawed wonderment.

The second half of the show follows Tommy’s ascendance from local hero to national celebrity – one of Townshend’s better conceits was always the substitution of pinball wizardry for rock stardom – including his emotional breakthrough (“Smash The Mirror,” “I’m Free”) when his sight, hearing and speech returns. The “Miracle Cure” sends him to the heights of stardom (“Sensation”) and to its depths (“Sally Simpson”).

At this point in the show, the musical veers from both the album and the film by eliminating the song “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” in which loathsome old Uncle Ernie (played for laughs in the film by The Who’s Keith Moon) is back in Tommy’s good graces and running a Tommy-themed retreat for fans. No such blanket forgiveness here: When last we see the alcoholic, dejected pedophile, he remains standing apart from the rest of the Walker family. Even Cousin Kevin has found his way back to the fold, putting his nasty skills to use (unbeknownst to Tommy) as the family’s authoritarian security guard, complete with a longcoat that lands somewhere between Communist China and 1984.

<br>Christina Sajous

Christina Sajous

The Acid Queen (Christina Sajous), like Cousin Kevin, is given a bit of, if not exoneration, then some understanding: The unrepentant sex worker-drug pusher of Tina Turner’s film portrayal, tasked with effecting some sort of cure by corrupting the child Tommy, is shown here to be a victim herself, with a pimp or two supplying the heroin that keeps her in line.

In any case, “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” isn’t missed, with the much lovelier “Welcome” serving the same function of conveying Tommy’s attempt to connect with his followers while rejecting their messianic expectations. It doesn’t go well, as evidenced by the greatest anthem of mob uprising and defiance in rock (here performed by the the production’s excellent chorus, with the word “break” subbing for “rape,” an odious sentiment even in ’69).

“We’re not gonna take it, never did and never will
Don’t want no religion and as far as we can tell
We ain’t gonna take you, never did and never will
We’re not gonna take you, we forsake you, gonna break you
Let’s forget you better still”

From there, it’s all over but the barnburner finale, a full-cast reprise of “See Me, Feel Me”/”Listening To You” that had the audience at the reviewed performance on its feet and roaring, a reception that had been teased out not only by an faultless cast and rousing score (the orchestra and orchestrations fully meet the occasion) but by two-plus hours of visual magic. Set designer David Korins (Hamilton) has devised a deceptively minimalist foundation, with large open spaces, scrims and furnishings that can seem mere suggestion – the pinball machine is little more than a frame. Splashing this cavernous canvas with extraordinary displays of light (courtesy of designer Amanda Zieve) and Peter Nigrini’s state-of-the-art projections, the world of Tommy is less the pinball machine buzzers and bells of yore than a 3-D mash-up of Tron-style laser show and you-are-there Virtual Reality. There’s even some Ivo van Hove-ish mixed media tossed in for good measure.

<br>The company

The company

Matching Nigrini’s time-jumping projections from Blitz to V.R. every step of the way are Sarafina Bush’s wildly inventive costumes, capturing each era’s essence without falling victim to that musical theater bogeyman of Halloween costume replication. Post-war drab gives way to Teddy Boy flash, which segues to leather-era early Beatles and, inevitably, the dystopian future-retro-fascist grays that Orwell himself might have imagined. At every epoch, Bush sends in black sleek-helmeted soldier-droog-robot toadies to make any amount of mischief.

<br>Ali Louis Bourzgui and the ensemble

Ali Louis Bourzgui and the ensemble

Keeping everything jumping, very literally, is Latarro’s exhilarating choreography, never better than in the ’50s-’60s-era mad celebrations of teenage abandon, whether the West Side Story ruffianism of “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” or that wonderful arcade dance of “Pinball Wizard.” Watch for the details: At one point as the young Tommy is dazzling the crowd with his Bally Table wizardry, the enthusiastic lads and lasses lift the boy’s feet so high that the kid’s body is at a 2 o’clock angle, tethered only to the machine by his crazy flipper fingers. Can this be anything other than an homage to the iconic photo of a young Elton John kicking his legs behind him while bashing his piano keys, Townshend’s pinball wizard-rock star metaphor made clear in one joyous moment of theater?

Of course, none of this razzle-dazzle would work without a cast to justify it, and McAnuff, an exemplary director who has really never been better, has assembled a very worthy group. Bourzgui, his wild mop of curly black hair crowning a handsome face dominated by big, dark Bette Davis eyes that remain wide and vacant until they’re not, is one of this season’s true finds. With eccentric, angular movements that stop just short of robotic, Bourzgui careens from the stilted expressions of a man trapped in his body to the fluid, soulful gestures of his adult self guiding his lost-to-themselves younger iterations. The rock-star moves that eventually arrive seem entirely inevitable, his voice throughout finding the sweet spot between Roger Daltrey howl and the musical theater control.

Those younger Tommy iterations, by the way, were played at the reviewed performance by Olive Ross-Kline (Tommy at 4) and Quinten Kusheba (age 10), both (adorably) wigged with the same unruly mane Bourzgui sports, and both given chances to shine as actors and singers. (Ross-Kline and Kusheba share the roles with, respectively, Cecilia Ann Popp and Reese Levine; whoever made the decision to cast the youngest Tommys with girls, brava).

No weak links in the rest of the cast either. Conte, so good in Broadway’s most recent Company, is no less a bright spot here, finding both the humor and the menace in the pin-sticking Cousin Kevin, “the school bully, the classroom cheat, the nastiest playfriend you ever could meet.” Conte is handed perhaps the most underrated song of the score (“Cousin Kevin,” written by The Who’s bassist John Entwistle), and runs with it.

Luff, as Tommy’s long-suffering, occasionally misguided but ever-devoted mom, is a wonder, reaching a show zenith with the Act II raver “Smash The Mirror.” (She’s equally impressive with the quieter husband-wife duet-ballad “I Believe My Own Eyes” with Jacobs, though that number, added by Townshend long after the original rock album, remains the stage musical’s sore thumb.)

<br>John Ambrosino, Bobby Conte, Ali Louis Bourzgui, Alison Luff, Adam Jacobs and the company

John Ambrosino, Bobby Conte, Ali Louis Bourzgui, Alison Luff, Adam Jacobs and the company

Notable among the very large ensemble is Sheldon Henry as the Hawker pimp who introduces the Acid Queen with “Eyesight To The Blind” (a menacing bluesy number heavily indebted, to put it mildly, to the great Sonny Boy Williamson). Sajous, as the Acid Queen, doesn’t have the shriek-of-nature vocal power of the film’s Tina Turner – who does? – but gives the character and the sultry song a wounded depth that feels thoroughly of the moment.

When Townshend wrote the album’s central question – “Can you hear me?” – back in ’69, he might have directed the lyric at his fictional alter-ego Tommy, but perceptive listeners recognized the plea for a larger connection, whether spiritual or communal or familial or even self. All these years later, the question remains at the heart of The Who’s Tommy, and we can answer, with great pleasure, loud and clear.

Title: The Who’s Tommy
Venue: Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre
Director: Des McAnuff
Book: Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Music and Lyrics: Pete Townshend
Choreography: Lorin Latarro
Cast: Ali Louis Bourzgui, Alison Luff, Adam Jacobs, John Ambrosino, Bobby Conte, Christina Sajous, with Haley Gustafson, Jeremiah Alsop, Ronnie S. Bowman Jr., Mike Cannon, Tyler James Eisenreich, Sheldon Henry, Afra Hines, Aliah James, David Paul Kidder, Tassy Kirbas, Lily Kren, Quinten Kusheba, Reese Levine, Brett Michael Lockley, Nathan Lucrezio, Alexandra Matteo, Mark Mitrano, Reagan Pender, Cecilia Ann Popp, Daniel Quadrino, Olive Ross-Kline, Jenna Nicole Schoen, Dee Tomasetta, and Andrew Tufano.
Running time: 2 hr 10 min (including intermission)

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