The Who’s Tommy – An Alienated Hero

A concept album in 1969, an extravagant Ken Russell film in 1975, and a 1993 Broadway version preceded this incarnation of Tommy. The alienated hero endures. Relentless rock and roll (the real thing, not jukebox homogenization) and a glut of videography have for decades distracted audiences from gaps in the story. This overstuffed version is no exception.

There is much to praise. David Korins skeletal set lends itself to Amanda Zieve’s unforgiving lighting and Peter Nigrini’s elaborate, imaginative projections (including live video), which according to my notes become irritating just a handful of times. Orchestrations – music supervision/additional arrangements by Ron Melrose – are rich. Sound design by Gareth Owen is excellent. Eardrums remain intact, lyrics are audible. Parentheses of music and action without dialogue are tellingly staged. Leads all have fine voices and solid acting chops.

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

You know the story. Tommy’s parents (Alison Luff and Adam Jacobs, both very good) meet cute and marry. After a montage of war news – well executed, but way too long – Mr. Walker goes off to war and is deemed MIA. Years pass. Assuming her husband is dead, Mrs. Walker acquires a new boyfriend (Natan Lucrezio). When fighting ends, her spouse is released from a POW camp. He returns home to find her in the arms of a stranger. The captain is civilized, her lover a violent brute. Mr. Walker shoots him in self defense.

All this is witnessed by four year-old Tommy (today Cecelia Ann Popp) whose traumatized reaction is to become deaf, dumb and blind. “Tommy doesn’t know what day it is/He doesn’t know what praying is.” Twenty year-old Tommy (the terrific Ali Louis Bourzgui in his Broadway debut) wanders through his past. “See me/Hear me/Touch me/Feel me.” He sings the iconic earworm. Mr. Walker is found innocent.

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy)

Hospitals can do nothing. It’s unclear whether they understand the boy’s maladies are psychological, but no testing is done until much later and even then, the play minimizes it. Dialogue or song that might make a difference is missing. The trope of Tommy’s standing endlessly in front of a mirror works for visuals, but of course, makes no sense.

Family friend “Uncle” Ernie babysits the ten year-old (Quinten Kusheba) and sexually abuses him. “Fiddle About” is deftly conceived. Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte), also enlisted to sit, tortures Tommy as a matter of amusement. “Tied to a chair, you won’t go anywhere/There’s a lot I can do to a freak.” Again, what we observe is minimal, but  it’s clear what’s going on. Watching the grateful parents pay each man is horrifying.

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy) and the Company

At St. Luke’s Youth Center, Tommy gravitates to a pinball machine. He unerringly scores high, then higher, able to sense response. Jerky movement is evocative. Desperate, his dad takes him to an ostensible healer, the heroin-addicted “Acid Queen” (Christina Sajous in a low cut, cheap looking, iridescent dress). Sajous has the right R & B voice, but the segment doesn’t land well.

Tommy grows up, achieving a kind of stardom. Though we know nothing of what’s going on in his mind, the piece indicates freedom is normality. One day, Mrs. Walker loses patience and smashes his mirror. The actress pulls him away as again and again the boy returns like an automaton. Tommy’s senses flood back in a rush. He flees the house.

On a platform in a stadium of cheering fans, there’s curiously no sign of pinball. Is Tommy supposed to be singing, proselytizing? He’s hired Kevin (and his thug friends in ersatz storm trooper costumes) as bodyguards.  What?!  Seeing Ernie, the young man has no reaction. These dramatic choices are hard to accept.

The Company

In short order, there’s the appearance of an uber fan, return home, rejection of fame by Tommy and, in turn, of him by his fans, reconciliation with his parents. All of this is smushed together eliciting no feeling of relief or uplift.  

Almost constant choreography by Lorin Latarro sharply evokes mechanism, but rarely changes. Sarafina Bush (costumes) should take Mrs. Walker’s clothing to a tailor. Robotic masks are effective. Usually reliable wig and hair designer Charles G. Lapointe has erred in the tightness of Tommy’s childhood curls making both actors look like ventriloquist dummies.

In 1969, Frank Rich wrote “Tommy’ was “the unwitting background music for the revelation of the My Lai massacre, the Chicago Seven trial, the Charles Manson murders. Those cataclysmic associations still reverberate within the piece.” Anti-heroes, cataclysms, and cults abound today, yet the musical has less impact. Perhaps its wrinkles are showing. Perhaps the decided lack of protagonist emotion feels unacceptable. It remains a spectacle for those who enjoy just that.

Once again directing, Des McAnuff does well by his characters. Staging is hyperactive. To each his own.

Photos by Matthew Murphy and Even Zimmerman

The Who’s Tommy
Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend
Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music by John Entwistle and Sonny Boy Williamson II
Directed by Des McAnuff

Nederlander Theatre   
208 W 41st Street

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.