THE WHO’S TOMMY Electrifies — Review


Ali Louis Bourzgui and the Company of The Who's Tommy | Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Juan A. Ramirez
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March 28, 2024 9:00 PM

From its hypnotic prologue, what distinguishes this thrilling first Broadway revival of The Who’s Tommy from most shows currently on the Main Stem is the way it uses projections. The amount of projections, screens, and light rigs onstage of late have me close to finally agreeing that commercial theatrical creativity might actually be dead. And yet, in director Des McAnuff’s dynamic staging – an updating of his original 1993 work – they work to create dimension, providing the depth and capacity required to pull off a beloved rock opera about a nascent god.

It’s not just Peter Nigrini’s projections which, evoking ghostly X-Rays, often alternate between blood-red photo negatives and clinical blues. The entire design team (David Korins’ set, all moving lines; Sarafina Bush’s sharp costumes; Amanda Zieve’s emphatic lighting; and Gareth Own’s blaring sound) work in beautiful harmony to bring Tommy's world – futuristic in that 1969 Romantic way, like the bedroom in 2001 –  to life.

And what harmony. Working from his band’s seminal album of the same name, Pete Townshend’s score, paired with a book he co-devised with McAnuff, presents a simple, though singularly grand storytelling vision the likes of which have been mostly wiped out through convoluted plots or regurgitated IPs.

Ordinary yet celestial, it follows a boy named Tommy, whose birth in mid-WWII London heralds a turbulent life. His father (Adam Jacobs), presumed killed during the war, returns to find his mother (Alison Luff, great) with another man, and the ensuing gunfight hurls Tommy into a yearslong catatonia. Silently leaning over like a drinking bird while his parents fret over how to snap him out of his condition, tthe young lad is taken advantage of by everyone from his leering Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) to his bullyish Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte, pouty and spectacularly voiced). Eventually, he finds his strengths lie within the pinball machine, and his prodigious skills earn him a fanbase worthy of filling arenas.

The Company of The Who's Tommy | Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The production, a revival of a 30-year old musical which itself premiered over two decades earlier, is sensible yet sensitive in retaining its aspects which might now be considered thornier: a smart move against the pandering desire to placate audiences into smooth-brained placation. A scene with a sex worker called the Acid Queen (Christina Sajous), whose body Tommy’s father hopes might jumpstart the boy’s psyche, leans into its trashiness; the belting Sajous slinking around overturned chairs in a dumpster fire bordello.

And Tommy, well, though still called “deaf, dumb, and blind” by the piece’s centerpiece song, “Pinball Wizard,” is treated by the production with respect, and made legendary by the three actors who embody him. The youngest iteration (Cecilia Ann Popp at the performance I attended) and his tween successor (Quinten Kusheba, similarly alternating) are visited by their older self (Ali Louis Bourzgui) in an identitarian trinity schism.

Bourzgui — a new star if Broadway recently seen one — has a muscular, masculine voice which, in an appealing contrast from his curly-haired youthfulness, appears to come from beyond himself. It’s an ethereal juxtaposition that’s nicely mirrored by his entrances; thin-air materializations worlds away from the gymnastics his younger selves are put through. An endurance trophy is in order for the child Tommys who, in keeping with their powerless character, are tossed, pulled, flipped, and jerked around with pyrotechnic vigor.

The older Tommy’s movements, once he properly enters the story, are similarly twitchy, deftly expressing his condition while matching the jaggedness of the music, as supervised by Ron Melrose. Lorin Latarro’s inventive choreography reflects both the unknowable machinations of a world built without Tommy in mind, never stopping to explain, as well as evoke the chaos with which he might envision it.

Truth be told, I was not expecting to be as bowled over by this story, or this revival, as I was. But there’s no arguing with talent, and with so much prowess on and off the stage, Tommy is an electric paean to rock immortality, and talent wherever one can find it.

The Who’s Tommy is in performance at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street in New York City. 

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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