‘The Who’s Tommy’ Review: Going Full Tilt

‘The Who’s Tommy’ Review: Going Full Tilt

That its plot makes no sense is not really the problem with “Tommy.” When it first appeared as a concept album, in 1969, it was, after all, billed as a rock opera. And let’s face it, if you’ve ever paid attention to its story unstoned, you’re going to have some questions, just as you might with “The Magic Flute.”

Nor can you complain about the rock part of the billing; there’s some pretty magic guitaring going on, and some righteously harmonized vocals.

Translations to film and the stage have offered additional pleasures. The 1975 movie gave us Tina Turner in top form — enough said. The original 1993 Broadway musical, with its flying Tommy and galloping pinball machine, was a visual groundbreaker, warmed by excellent performances. Even the colder, coarser revival that opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theater, long since rebranded as “The Who’s Tommy,” offers the excitement of big, poppy belting.

Who’s Tommy indeed! And whose? Despite all its incarnations, the experience that makes the most powerful use of Pete Townshend’s infernally catchy songs remains the one that takes place in the ear’s imagination. Largely freed from the burdens of literalness, the album did not need to make sense to make history.

Today, though, unless you’re a die-hard fan who thrills automatically to every lick and lyric, you may want something that calls itself musical theater to offer more than a full-tilt assault on the senses. This production — directed, like the original, by Des McAnuff — won’t provide that, being less interested in trying to put across the story (by McAnuff and Townshend) than in obscuring it with relentless noise and banal imagery.

To be fair, the story, set during World War II and the two decades after, probably benefits from some obscurity. We first meet Tommy Walker as a cheerful 4-year-old (Olive Ross-Kline, alternating with Cecilia Ann Popp). But when his father (Adam Jacobs) returns after several years in a prisoner-of-war camp, and kills the lover that his mother (Alison Luff) has acquired in the meantime, the boy is traumatized. Witnessing the shooting, he instantly loses his ability to hear, speak and see, leaving him a shell of a child, defenseless against his parents’ rages and his pedophile uncle (John Ambrosino). It also makes him, for a musical, a bizarre protagonist, spending most of his time staring into a large, symbolic mirror.

To solve that problem, and demonstrate his dissociation, the authors split Tommy into three coexisting incarnations. The 10-year-old version (Quinten Kusheba, alternating with Reese Levine) is, if possible, even more unresponsive, baffling many doctors who apparently failed their psychiatry courses. Seeking a cure, his anguished father brings him, as one does, to a prostitute and heroin addict called the Acid Queen (Christina Sajous). Only after she promises “to tear his soul apart” does dad think better of it.

But if Tommy remains what the famous (and now problematic) lyric calls “that deaf, dumb and blind kid,” he is not without feeling. In his teens, his ability to respond to vibrations turns him into a “pinball wizard” and somehow thus a celebrity. Emerging from the broken mirror of his childhood, he becomes, in Ali Louis Bourzgui’s cool portrayal, a symbol of the possibility of reintegration, recovery and rock stardom: a young adult with a cult.

This parade of odd plot points and narrational perplexities passes quite swiftly — perhaps, at little more than two hours, too swiftly, as the story is hard to follow and harder to swallow.

That’s why I find it more profitable to think about “Tommy” not as a chain of events but as a dream you are watching from a perch inside someone’s amygdala. That person would of course be Townshend, who grew up in London at 22 Whitehall Gardens — not far from Tommy’s home at 22 Heathfield Gardens. He recently told The Times that “Tommy” is probably “a memoir in which I work out my childhood stuff.” Though his abuse, he said, was at the hands of his “awful” grandmother, not his “neglectful and careless” parents, he evidently suffered from enough trauma and exploitation to make himself a model for Tommy.

The earworm tunes and weird lyrics through which the adult Townshend processed that trauma make the show moving when offered at the right scale. Ambivalence is the keynote. There’s no excusing the damage done to him by others, and yet, as with Tommy, that damage is also what provided him with his gift. (“Sickness will surely take the mind/Where minds can’t usually go,” the boy sings in the aptly named “Amazing Journey.”) On the other hand, Townshend, or at least his avatar here, finds that “freedom lies in normality.” This is the opposite of rock’s countercultural pose; in the end, the one to whom Tommy sings the anthem “Listening to You” is not a crowd of admirers but his mother.

McAnuff’s production does not traffic in such subtleties. The entire warm, emotional end of the show’s spectrum has been lopped off, leaving only black, white and garish yellow. Even the string quartet that was part of the 1993 orchestration has been eliminated. Also missing from that version: the flying that was so effective and poetic as a representation of Tommy’s inner aspirations.

Instead, the top staging note is provided by Peter Nigrini’s projections, including live video, that tumble across David Korins’s skeletal, shape-shifting set. (The pinball machine is so spindly it looks as if it is made of K’nex.) The lighting by Amanda Zieve is deliberately cold and harsh.

Nor is there any attempt at complexity within the production’s strict parameters. The imagery is a catalog of clichés. Tommy’s security guards wear SS-style greatcoats by Sarafina Bush. A projection of a giant box of Lux soap flakes looms over the otherwise unidentifiable spot where Mrs. Walker is doing laundry. Racks of obviously fake test tubes are relayed hand-to-hand when Tommy is being examined by doctors. I’ll grant that the Acid Queen’s spinning wheel is an unexpected gesture, but it’s bewildering. Is she a Fate?

If so, her message to her fellow characters perhaps should be: You will be overwhelmed. However loudly and well the performers sing, however frenziedly they dance Lorin Latarro’s dystopian choreography, they rarely surface from the production’s flooding of the senses with any expressiveness intact.

Still, lovers of rock concerts with tons of effects may yet like “Tommy,” even if it seems self-defeating to parrot arena-show aesthetics in a musical that implicitly criticizes arenas as sites of thoughtless idolization and fascistic violence. What I missed in the middle of all that overemphasis was some sense of humanity, a couple of violins balancing the guitars, a touch of real Townshend. Because when everything’s an effect, no matter how brilliant, none can be special.

The Who’s Tommy
At the Nederlander Theater, Manhattan; tommythemusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

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