The new revival of The Who’s Tommy at the Gooman Theatre pulls out all the bells and whistles, crafting a feast for the senses from the tragic and ultimately redemptive story of a boy rendered nearly catatonic by multiple traumas only to emerge years later as the ultimate social influencer with messianic appeal to youth culture and a message about being true to oneself.
This production, featuring Pete Townshend’s legendary music and lyrics, and a propulsive, no-punches-pulled book by Townshend and director Des McAnuff, further benefits from beautifully immersive set and lighting design, thrilling orchestration that makes you wonder if Pete himself might’ve stopped by the pit to play guitar, and a brilliant lead performance by Ali Louis Bourzgui, who plays Tommy’s pathos and triumphs to perfection while showcasing a beautiful singing voice that isn’t as powerful as Roger Daltrey’s but wrings all the heartbreaking emotion and catharsis from such iconic songs as “See Me, Feel Me” and “I’m Free.” (There’s a reason why the 1969 album spent more than two years on the Billboard charts.)
In short, this Tommy is a stunner of a show, from a breathtaking early set-piece in which British paratroopers parachute into enemy skies only to be shot down and captured by lurking Nazi forces, to the powerful mirror smash that begins to free Tommy from his emotional torment, to the futuristic rally where he attempts to talk his devotees out of following him so closely.
To its credit, this production does not shy away from or gloss over or sand the edges off of the traumatic events that leave Tommy locked inside himself in terror for so many years. We are horrified along with him as his father, who was presumed to be among the dead from that fateful paratroop mission, returns home and shoots dead his wife’s lover. And then we are horrified for Tommy, only just emerging from toddlerhood, as his parents selfishly exhort him to lie and tell the police he saw and heard nothing.
The horror deepens as Uncle Ernie, played with chilling authenticity by John Ambrosino, gives Tommy’s parents a rare night out and takes the opportunity to “Fiddle About” with his defenseless nephew in a refrain that will stick with you until you feel like you need a hot shower to wash the evil off.
It’s a similar story with bully Cousin Kevin, played with sadistic brio by Bobby Conte as he beats, tortures and spits on the adolescent Tommy, even shoving him into a garbage can before realizing he can exploit him further by drawing crowds to watch his freakish wizardry at the pinball machine. Townshend was confronting the many ways in which hurt people hurt people long before that phrase became a pop-psych staple. In that way, The Who’s Tommy is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1969.
Tommy takes audiences on a dark journey, but it’s one imbued with empathy and compassion for this abused, neglected boy, and punctuated by powerful numbers such as “The Acid Queen,” ferociously belted by Christina Sajous as the woman to whom Tommy’s father takes him for deflowering in one of many misguided attempts to cure his ills. The company numbers, especially “Pinball Wizard” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” pack a potent punch and showcase Lorin Latarro’s stellar choreography. The child actors who play the toddler and adolescent Tommy are astonishingly good. And, as Tommy’s overwhelmed parents, Adam Jacobs and Alison Luff bring heartbreaking emotional complexity to their roles.
This production of The Who’s Tommy is a high-gloss hit machine with an undeniable edge. It is an exemplar of rock and roll. But don’t take my word for it. See and feel this Tommy for yourself to experience a touching, potentially healing night at the theater
(Disclosure: My wife is a member of the Goodman’s leadership team.)
The Who’s Tommy runs through August 6 at the Goodman Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren