“The Who’s Tommy” Plays the Old Pinball

It’s been a long, wild trip since 1969, when the opening chords of Pete Townshend’s “Tommy,” written with and recorded by the Who, first blasted onstage. The band toured the genre-defying album—a seeker’s rock opera in which a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” discovers a messianic gift for pinball—for several years. Throughout the next decade, other artists took a crack at the Who’s material: there was a ballet, a symphony, and Ken Russell’s nutterbutter psychedelic film, in 1975. Then, about fifteen years after the Who had more or less put “Tommy” away, the director Des McAnuff convinced Townshend that, together, they could turn it into a musical. The result smashed onto Broadway in 1993. A whole bunch of folks won Tony Awards; certainly, everybody made money. So, thirty years later, here we are again.

Or, rather, we’re trying to be there again. Which “there”—the seventies? the nineties?—may depend on your age. It will also depend on whether your “Tommy” preferences lean toward the rawness of the band’s concerts (which the lead singer, Roger Daltrey, once referred to fondly as a “bum note and a bead of sweat”) or toward Broadway’s glossy, show-and-also-tell approach. Is it a good idea to act out the lyrics of a song about a mystical drugged-out prostitute? Responses will vary. Either way, now at the Nederlander, nostalgia is being delivered by brute force. Before this outing, I had never seen “The Who’s Tommy” in a theatre, but when I heard the overture’s guitar chords, hissing with cymbals, I felt a shudder of false memory. The sound designer Gareth Owen has added a recording of a roaring crowd to the performance’s first few moments, and I found myself remembering stadiums that I’d never been in. But, yeesh, then the show gets going.

It starts with a long, breathless introduction, some of it enacted in slightly goofy mime, as the rock instrumental plays: during the Second World War, a welder (Alison Luff) and a Royal Air Force officer, Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs), meet, marry, and lose each other, when he’s sent to Europe and shot down by the Germans during a parachute jump. McAnuff, directing his own show once again, three decades after the original, displays his finest moment of stagecraft here: the projection design (by Peter Nigrini) shows us the inside of a bomber bay, and a line of paratroopers deploys by dropping, one by one, through the floor. Back in England, Tommy is born, and the Air Force mistakenly notifies Mrs. Walker that the captain is never coming back. When he does eventually make it home, he breezes in, shoots his wife’s new lover—don’t bother mourning him; he immediately fades back into the chorus—and traumatizes his four-year-old son. (I saw Cecilia Ann Popp as the youngest Tommy.) Tommy’s parents insist to him, “You didn’t hear it / you didn’t see it,” inducing in the child a total psychic block—he can no longer sense the world.

The world then preys on the locked-in boy. Tommy’s uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) molests him when he’s ten years old (I saw Quinten Kusheba, wearing one of the wig and hair designer Charles LaPointe’s silliest curly wigs); his cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte) flings him into a garbage can. Tommy’s older self, played by an oddly muted Ali Louis Bourzgui in a white turtleneck, croons beautifully to his ten-year-old body. “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,” he calls through a one-way mirror, like a Phantom of the Opera who has studied est. Kevin does, at least, put wee Tommy in front of a pinball machine, and the kid discovers his talent. The ensemble lifts his little legs so he seems to fly, and the first act ends with something that should have happened from the start: the back scrim flies out, and we see what appears to be the house band, shredding like mad. Energy finally fizzes and pops; voices that have been restrained are unleashed. We’re given a break from all the vibe-killing black-and-white projections as the lighting designer Amanda Zieve triggers weird spherical kaleidoscopic lights, which move and shimmer like warp cores.

Here, as elsewhere, the set designer David Korins has chosen abstraction for the key prop, the pinball machine, which is played by a black folding table with a glowing rectangle sticking up on one end. If you are, say, from a generation unfamiliar with pinball, you won’t get much of a sense of those Carnaby Street whistles and bells. Maybe old people used to play with tables, the young will think. They made do with so little.

And this struck me as the problem throughout. The production, more a reanimation than a revival, seems to think that there’s no point in showing us the pinball machine since surely we remember it. All the theatregoer will need is the reference, right? Nostalgia is a key element of many shows—that’s basically the whole point of Broadway now—but it’s ruinous if the makers are seeing a past that we aren’t enthralled by, too.

McAnuff created this production last year at the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, and chose new collaborators rather than the 1993 team: Korins instead of John Arnone; the choreographer Lorin Latarro instead of Wayne Cilento. But McAnuff seems to have asked them to stylistically point to those earlier artists’ work so frequently that I felt I was sometimes seeing constraint rather than fresh creativity. Korins uses an innovative grid of flying neon lights, but beneath that the core geometries are the same. And many elements are presented like talismans, to the point of bafflement. Did Michael Cerveris, as Tommy, wear a yellow jacket in 1993? Then the costume designer Sarafina Bush must put one on Bourzgui now. Even Christina Sajous, playing the psychonautic sex worker, does a Tina Turner impression—probably because her character, the Acid Queen, was played by Turner in the movie.

Most important, the show’s already bizarre storytelling suffers; perhaps McAnuff assumes that we’ll be as familiar with the plot as he is. (He does cut a number, and it makes things less clear.) The need to pack a gajillion events into tiny spaces discombobulates the end of the show. Here’s what happens in the course of four swift scenes: adult Tommy’s senses are cured when his mother smashes a mirror; he attains immense pinball celebrity (sure!), employing his cousin as the head of his private pseudo-Brown Shirts; he abandons that guru-like status because a fan gets hurt; and he joyfully leaves the Big Life for home, where he is welcomed by his sexual-abuser uncle, his killer dad, his mirror-smashing mum, and his jackbooted cousin. (There’s also a projection that reads “IN THE FUTURE,” which, since we start in the nineteen-forties, would mean that Tommy’s family is immortal.)

No one explains why Tommy’s followers sometimes wear silver helmets; if you never learned from one of the story’s earlier incarnations that Tommy encourages his acolytes to muffle their own senses, this production won’t let on. Hassled by his fans’ adulation, Tommy instructs his followers to go find truth for themselves. Yeah! I thought. Don’t fall in line! But immediately thereafter, for the finale, everyone in the cast gets into . . . a line . . . and sings the ecstatic “Listening to You”: “Right behind you, I see the millions / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.” I get opinions? Tommy, did they hear you? Did you hear yourself?

Somewhere in the transition from concert to musical, Townshend and McAnuff have lost the rock opera’s original grip on metaphor. A double album doesn’t need logic: no one cares about surface sense when the music is moving your blood around with sheer noise and rhythm; everything can mean anything. But McAnuff and Townshend’s dramatization insists we’re watching a story that does make sense, and then refuses to create that sense. I kept returning to one question: Who is Tommy? He’s more an abstraction than a character, really. Townshend once wrote that the name sublimed out of Britishness itself—it’s been slang for an English soldier since the eighteenth century—but also out of his own spiritual yearning. It contains the meditative syllable “om,” and, for many, the idea of a child drifting without senses will remind us of our shared, unawakened selfhood. We are all, Townshend’s songs imply, living in that kind of dissociated illusion. What force will help us recognize the real? “Tommy” the album wants us to have our own ideas about this, and I’ve dreamed several in the hours I’ve spent listening to it. The music is still frequently beautiful: it asked me to look within, and to look without. But it certainly never told me to look back. ♦

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