‘Tommy’ is a strange Broadway show. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.

NEW YORK — “The Who’s Tommy” is one weird show. In terms of head-spinning “whaaaaa?” moments, I would venture that, among mainstream musicals, it’s bested only by “Cats.”

After all, it’s about a little boy who shuts out the world around him after a traumatic experience, somehow grows up into a pinball god and acquires legions of adoring followers in the process. Tragedy and catharsis expressed through often surreal tableaux and great rock songs — it’s a wild ride.

End of carousel

Even by the show’s wackadoo standards, Des McAnuff’s alt-futuristic revival, which just opened on Broadway after playing at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in the summer, has a casual relationship with coherence. Does Tommy become a cult leader, a proto-influencer, a tyrant, a victim or all of the above? Does he somehow stop aging in his 20s? My head!

But by the time your brain catches up with the inconsistencies, McAnuff’s production has moved on, carried by one earworm after another and wall-to-wall (literally) kinetic projections. A tale of sensory deprivation told through sensory overload makes counterintuitive sense.

McAnuff certainly has an intimate connection with the show. He adapted the Who’s 1969 rock opera, “Tommy,” with the band’s leader, Pete Townshend, and directed the musical’s original version — which won five of the 11 Tony Awards it was nominated for in 1993.

The main action kicks off in London in 1945, when 4-year-old Tommy (Cecilia Ann Popp at the performance I caught) sees his father, Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs), kill his wife’s lover (Nathan Lucrezio). While Mrs. Walker (Alison Luff) shrugs off this drama — I suppose that’s what they mean by stiff upper lip — the shock renders the child “deaf, dumb and blind,” as the 55-year-old lyrics bluntly put it.

Years pass and we enter the 1950s, when 10-year-old Tommy (Quinten Kusheba at the performance I attended) is abused by Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) and tormented by Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte). Reflecting on the events is the adult Tommy, played by Ali Louis Bourzgui, a heartthrob who cuts a slightly aloof, dreamlike presence in a mock turtleneck and balances finesse and power as a singer.

The original album, and Ken Russell’s film adaptation from 1975, summoned a version of Townshend’s postwar years that’s simultaneously grounded and fantastical. But this “Tommy,” the program informs us, takes place in the “past, present and future.” When the title character becomes an idol, the show doubles down on a sleek dystopian aesthetic that made me wonder whether we had been in a multiverse Britain all along. Sarafina Bush’s costumes nod to the rockers and mods of the 1950s and ’60s, but they also incorporate neo-fascist military garb. Occasionally, ensemble members wear individuality-denying masks that make them look as if Daft Punk had taken up fencing.

The grayscale palette, with splashes of yellow as Tommy’s signature color, creates an oppressive mood that’s reinforced by Amanda Zieve’s stark lighting, David Korins’s stylized set and Peter Nigrini’s projections.

At the same time, the production is not as radical as this description may suggest and recycles many artistic decisions that have calcified over the decades. Christina Sajous’s “Acid Queen,” for instance, is a tepid version of what Tina Turner served up in the movie. (It would be interesting to see a different physical take on this one number, or hear a performer lean more toward Merry Clayton’s menacing slow burn from the London Symphony Orchestra’s 1972 recording of the original album.)

Still, the songs, which are often bite-size, remain as distinctive as they’ve ever been (which is why “The Who’s Tommy” can also be effective in a semi-staged format, as evidenced by Josh Rhodes’s production at the Kennedy Center five years ago). The score was very theatrical for a chart-topping rock band in the late ’60s, but it’s also very rock by Broadway standards, even now. The company walks that line, at least vocally, better than the one from 1993, which was more Broadwayfied, and the orchestra, which is as loud as it needs to be, plays with a precision that does not forsake energy and the joys of riffage. What this “Tommy” is preaching might be a little murky, but when the entire cast lines up to face the audience and belts the “Listening to You” finale, by golly, you believe.

The Who’s Tommy, ongoing at the Nederlander Theatre in New York. 2 hours, 10 minutes. tommythemusical.com.

SOURCE

Leave a Comment