Friday, May 17, 2024

REVIEW: The Who's Tommy

Review of the Saturday, May 12, 2024 evening performance at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. Starring Ali Louis Bourzgui, Allison Luff, Adam Jacobs, John Ambrosino, Bobby Conte and Christina Sajous, with Reese Levine and Olive Ross-Kline. Music and lyrics by Pete Townshend. Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Additional music by John Entwistle and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Scenic design by David Korins. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Amanda Zieve. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Choreography by Lorin Latarro. Direction by Des McAnuff. 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

My first exposure to The Who's Tommy was in 1993, when I entered the then bright yellow St. James Theatre, determined to see all of that season's new musicals. Unlike everyone else, it seemed I was the only person in the audience completely unfamiliar with the ground-breaking rock opera. Their collective excitement swept me up, and soon we embarked on the amazing journey of Tommy Walker and his messed up family. I was awestruck by the pulsating, dramatic score and the thrilling staging by Des McAnuff and visceral choreography by Wayne Cilento. At home, I drove everyone around me crazy with my repeated listening of the cast recording, and I was basically obsessed with the Pinball Wizard.

When it was announced that McAnuff was again staging the show, I was instantly excited, and couldn't wait to see it all again on Broadway. At last it happened - the idea that it would have a new-ish concept and a more modern staging had me very curious. Would I fall in love with Tommy all over again?


This time around, there's a bizarre framing device of starting in "The Future," a dark, dystopian view of today (?) ...later than that? Black clad automatons and adult Tommy 
stare us down and don VR helmets (I think). With a flare of bright light, we are suddenly in the past - World War II era Britain. My mind immediately calculated that at the start of the show Tommy would be at least approaching 80 or more. Then, after I got myself back to paying attention to the show, it felt more familiar. Tommy is traumatized - probably more by his parents screaming in his face, "You didn't SEE it! You didn't HEAR it! You didn't FEEL it!" Lest anyone get too offended, it is clear that despite the un-PC (though period accurate) taunts of his community, Tommy is not deaf, dumb or blind, nor is he autistic. He is a trauma and abuse (mental, physical and sexual) victim. More troubling these days should be the notion that his gifts are exploited, his local fame becomes a sickening example of media attention and misguided global hero worship. He can't escape it even if he wants to. Then we are back to the future and those militaristic automatons are in an aggressively tight line (think police advancing on protesters) advancing toward us and singing in increasingly ominous volume. Cheap ploy to force a standing ovation aside, those final moments aren't as exhilarating as they are disturbing.

To give credit where credit is due, when McAnuff and his team settle on a concept, they commit 100%, no matter how misguided unfortunate the choice. The entire creative team is on the same page from Sarafina Bush's uniform-like costumes, to Amanda Zieve's CAT scan-like lighting (sweeping bars of light are a constant - and overused - element), and Peter Nigrini's overused and disquieting projections, to David Korins' uncharacteristically unremarkable (drab, dull) settings. What is remarkable is that for all the flash and bang, the whole thing looks cheap. And ready to box up and tour, where it will still look cheap.

Anyone who knows me (or if you read enough of this website) knows that I love dance-y shows. Fosse, Dancin', Movin' Out, etc. thrill me. This season's Illinoise is 90 minutes of non-stop dancing - I could have gone for twice that. But Tommy do I put it? Over choreographed. Lorin Latarro should win awards for sheer volume, but the dancers are often so frenetic, so overblown, that they become an amorphous blur. At some point, I gave up on trying to fully engage with the hard-working ensemble. I was simply worn down by the excess. I'm not sure whose purview the use of completely black clad cast members to move scenery and to lift Tommy so as to make him and surrounding furniture "fly" falls under, Lotarro or McAnuff, but no matter who made it happen, it was unattractive and very distracting. At some point, these figures ended up with leather S&M masks and face coverings that looked like silver balls (yes, I get the reference) that are more disturbing than they are effective.

Though there is some debate about the level of synthesized music, by and large, Pete Townshend's score remains exciting and emotional. And the company is stacked with vastly talented singers, who only occasionally overindulge in the current trend of Idol styling. The cast recording will be terrific. Their acting is more of a mixed bag. As Tommy's parents, Allison Luff and Adam Jacobs, sing their roles just fine. Their duet "I Believe My Own Eyes" is a highlight. But neither of them give off much of a loving vibe, nor even the necessary desperation that would cause them to do what they do as their son grows up. 

As Uncle Ernie, John Ambrosino is creepy enough, I suppose. He has that groomer/child molester leer down pat, but his crucial number, "Fiddle About" falls flat due mostly to the fact that he is never really close enough to the young boy to feel even remotely dangerous. (In the original, Uncle Ernie never literally fondled Tommy, either, but there was no doubt about what was going on.) Similarly, a miscast Bobby Conte is more smart ass than menacing bully, and even more unconvincing as a teenager. Finally, as the Acid Queen, Christina Sajous is also miscast, out of her depth and not nearly mysterious, sexy or "druggy" enough. It pains me to say that, as I've been a fan of hers since American Idiot.

This production's main asset is a significant one: Ali 
Louis Bourzgui, who, in his Broadway debut, is impressive. Vocally, he is aces - powerful and soulful and, importantly, never excessive. Despite the ridiculousness of a lot of what he's been asked to do, he is always compelling and expressive. He has more than earned his 2024 Theatre World Award. How wonderful to be there at the beginning of his career.

Much of the blocking and choreography is very regimented, frequently militaristic. The cast seems to move in predetermined linear formations, and the antagonists cause disruption to those smooth patterns. If the idea is that they are pin balls moving around a machine and the bad guys are the bumpers, then maybe McAnuff deserves more credit. I hope that is the case, even if it is sloppily executed. But mostly, this Tommy is so disappointing, I don't even care.

📸: M. Murphy, E. Zimmerman

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