By Holli Harms

The Who’s TOMMY, a rock opera, is a careful loving explosion of a gift, wrapped in music and movement. And it is a confusing conundrum of a horror story of a child stripped of his innocence by selfish narcissistic parents who murder, in front of their four-year-old. Parents who leave their child with a pedophiliac Uncle and take their child to a heroin addict for help, only to reconsider at the last moment and come to finally realize that their child should be rescued from the dark sleep of quiet deception they have placed on him.

If you listen closely to the story, it is a child’s nightmare. This production, unlike the original Broadway production in 1993, in which I was privileged to be an audience member, pushes child abuse and transforms itself into a story of a dysfunctional family. This focus has created a bleak, dark, production. The 1993 production enhanced the idea of a child coming from trauma and struggles of humans who want to own love into a star, and in the end, becoming someone who can love on his own. It shows how human endurance can achieve recognition, success, and love. This production on the other hand, with its bleak flat neon projections of black, white, gray, and splash of yellow (an uncomfortable queasy color) is a distancing disconnected story that leaves the audience watching projections flying by and performers doing the same. It’s as if our current fallible AI was given rein to put on a production yielding no heart and humanity.

A child witnesses his father murder another man in his home. He is told by his parents that what he experienced never happened. He saw nothing. That child then becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. He tries to step out of that world but that world will not let him go. This is the journey of Tommy Walker, from the age of four to a young man of twenty-one, from a tethered soul to the horrors of life, and eventually to becoming a pinball wizard whose celebrity outshines all. This is the “Myth of Tommy,” much like the myth of Greek and Roman gods. The gods must endure the polar opposites of untold horrors and unbelievable praise that they will swim in until they drown.

Much of the production is at a race pace that never gives us the chance to fall into the characters. It is a torrent of exposition, i.e. and then this happened to Tommy and his family, and then this, and then this. We are never able to lock into the story. We are sitting back enjoying the wonderful performers but we are not lifted out of our chairs. Two people by me lifted themselves at intermission never to return.

The performers are all so marvelous and that’s part of the tragic loss of this production. Ali Louis Bourzgui as Tommy is enchanting and mysterious, painful and beautiful. He brings elegance to the character. Alison Luff as his mother has a tough part to play as she is a mother who is trying to support and love a husband who committed the act that changed her child, as well as support her child who is distant and non-loving. A mother who wants to be a mother but is not allowed to give her love eventually falls apart. Her falling is what snaps her child out of his trance. Luff does a wonderful job of creating a mother of confused love that is still unconditional.  Adam Jacobs as Tommy’s dad has an even tougher job. His violence is the catalyst for so much and yet Jacobs manifests a love of his child and a parental want for his child. All three take command of the stage and songs as best they can with their constant media counterpart. And a shout out to the young actors who play young Tommy at age 4 Cecilia Ann Popp and Olive Ross-Kline, and Tommy age 10, Quinten Kusheba and Reese Levine. All committed wonderful singers and performers.

The evil ones, Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino), Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte) and the Acid Queen (Christina Sajous) are shining monsters.  All three were wonderful performances. I only wish that the stage had been less filled with objects, projections, and movement to allow them to have their evil, sad moments. Ambrosino’s  Uncle Ernie shows us in quiet moments his regret for the person he is and the part he must have played in his nephew’s mental unraveling.

What was compelling and finally arrived but far too late, was the final ten minutes of the performance. The stage stripped of its projections, with only straightforward stage lighting, and the beautiful faces of the actors coming downstage to sing to us was astonishing. Finally, a connection between audience and performers.

Photo by Matthew Murphy & Edward Zimmerman

The music is phenomenal. Guitar riffs that are transcendental. Lyrics and tunes that are stunning. Let the music and the acting be what lives on the stage. It is more than enough. Tell the story, tell the truth, keep it simple. Get rid of the splash and pomp and circumstance and let the actors, all of them on the stage, with their amazing voices and presence, transform us.

The Who’s TOMMY,  music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, and book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, directed by Des McAnuff.

Cast: Ali Louis Bourzgui, Alison Luff, Adam Jacobs, John Ambrosino, Bobby Conte, and Christina Sajous,  Haley Gustafson, Jeremiah Alsop, Ronnie S. Bowman Jr., Mike Cannon, Tyler James Eisenreich, Sheldon Henry, Afra Hines, Aliah James, David Paul Kidder, Tassy Kirbas, Lily Kren, Quinten Kusheba, Reese Levine, Brett Michael Lockley, Nathan Lucrezio, Alexandra Matteo, Mark Mitrano, Reagan Pender, Cecilia Ann Popp, Daniel Quadrino, Olive Ross-Kline, Jenna Nicole Schoen, Dee Tomasetta, and Andrew Tufano.

Creative Team: choreographer Lorin Latarro, music supervision and additional arrangements by Ron Melrose; music direction and additional orchestrations by Rick Fox; orchestrations by Steve Margoshes; set design by David Korins; projection design by Peter Nigrini; costume design by Sarafina Bush; lighting design by Amanda Zieve; sound design by Gareth Owen; and wig and hair design by Charles LaPointe.

The Who’s TOMMY at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street).

Tickets HERE

Running Time: 2 Hours and 10 minutes including intermission