The Who already were regarded as classic rock by the time my generation rolled around. That’s how long Pete Townshend and his band have been influencers on the world’s music stage.
Townshend was barely in his twenties when he wrote the rock opera “Tommy,” which was released as a concept album by The Who in 1969, and made into a film in 1975 starring their lead singer Roger Daltrey, with the late Tina Turner as “The Acid Queen.”
Des McAnuff and Townshend co-wrote a stage adaptation that premiered in San Diego in 1992. Directed by McAnuff, the production transferred to Broadway in 1993, earning Tony Awards for McAnuff as director and Townshend for best score.
Now, some 30 years later, McAnuff has returned to “Tommy” – this time at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. And the experience is glorious. McAnuff has reimagined “The Who’s Tommy” for a new generation, blending future and past in dazzling fashion.
A long list of people have contributed to helping turn McAnuff’s brilliant mind-bending concept for the new version into reality. That artistic staff includes set designer David Korins, costume designer Sarafina Bush, wig and hair designer Charles G. LaPointe, fight director Steve Rankin, lighting designer Amanda Zieve, sound designer Gareth Owen and projection designer Peter Nigrini. Music direction and additional orchestrations are by Rick Fox. Music supervision and additional arrangements are by Ron Melrose.
This production would not have been possible 30 years ago. The technology simply did not exist. Impressive projections provide McAnuff a tapestry upon which to unleash his wildest imagination.
The story begins when Tommy is very young, and witnesses a killing in his home involving his parents and another man. When the child is told he didn’t see anything and didn’t hear anything, the internal conflict affects his mind, leaving him deaf, blind and mute.
Tommy’s trauma-induced disabilities additionally leave him vulnerable to exploitation. Meanwhile, he is taken to every doctor, but none can restore his senses. Then, the unexpected happens. Improbably, he becomes a pinball wizard, and this odd notoriety propels Tommy to mythical celebrity status – perhaps a precursor to today’s social media sensations.
McAnuff’s creative vision and a spectacular cast to an epic-level production is the choreography of Lorin Latarro.
The tremendous dancers who make up the ensemble are stars of this rock opera featuring some of the most inspired choreography since Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse reinvented Broadway in their heydays. Enter the era of Lorin Latarro.
From top to bottom, this is a cast of dancers. They execute moves I wouldn’t have thought possible, and make it look easy. And these performers aren’t only dancers. They create amazing multipart harmonies and soaring solos that would make any “American Idol” alum jealous.
As for the characters they create? Those may be the most magnificent things of all.
The production stars Adam Jacobs as Tommy’s father, Capt. Walker, and Alison Luff as Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Walker. Both are Broadway veterans who show off thrilling voices that add excitement and electricity to the unforgettable score.
Tommy is played by Ali Louis Bourzgui, whom Chicago audiences have fallen in love with already. He is a very talented singer who understands the physicality of the role and the uniqueness of the character. His best number hands down is “I’m Free” in Act II where he really connects to the music.
Another standout in the cast is John Ambrosino as Uncle Ernie, a character who does despicable things. Ambrosino reveals the man’s self-contempt.
Sheldon Henry and Daniel Quadrino are exceptional in multiple roles. Their vocal duet and Quadrino’s harmonica playing on “Eyesight to the Blind” leading into “The Acid Queen” will curl your toes. It’s the way Townshend’s music was meant to be sung.
Tommy is played at age 4 by Ava Rose Doty of Downers Grove and Presley Rose Jones, and at age 10 by Annabel Finch and Ezekiel Ruiz. Often, child roles are cute, but ultimately make little impact. However, these child performers are impressive. Wow!
Pete Townshend was supposed to be in town to kick off what is sure to be a triumphant run at the Goodman Theatre. Tickets are in high demand and the production already has been extended twice through Aug. 6.
Regrettably, Townshend’s flight was canceled, and his wife tested positive for COVID, so either way, his appearance was not destined to happen. But he did send a lovely note thanking the city of Chicago.
I don’t know if McAnuff and the Goodman want to tackle transferring this 30th anniversary production to Broadway when it finishes in Chicago, but if they do, the legendary director almost certainly would add to his awards collection.
A special shout-out to Matthew Schufreider and the entire front-of-house staff for keeping all the patrons happy through their exemplary service.
The Goodman production of “The Who’s Tommy” is like enjoying a fine pastry at a three-star restaurant where a kitchen full of the most skilled artists in the world have pooled their creativity to give you the experience of a lifetime.
The Who’s Tommy runs at The Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn) through August 6th. For tickets call (312) 443-3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Tommy.
Photo credit Liz Lauren
A variation of this review is published by Northwest Herald/Shaw Media.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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