The biggest surprise in the engrossing staged version of “The Who’s Tommy” now at the Goodman Theatre is how strongly the work stands alone, given the indelible imprint the music by Pete Townshend and his collaborators in The Who have long had on popular culture. Ironically, the success of the musical “Tommy” as a standalone work may have its roots in The Who’s original designs on “Tommy” as a potentially lucrative concert work. When Townshend conceived the concept album/rock opera he hoped that the work—first released as a double album—would set the group apart from the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll universe. Creators of stage musicals always have their eyes fixed on filling seats and they also hope that catchy, memorable tunes will drive music sales. Townshend conceived of “Tommy” as a similarly appealing whole but originally meant it for the group alone. Its commercial appeal—and it is appealing—may be what makes it such a great show without The Who at hand.
In their heyday, in the 1960s and seventies, The Who wooed giant crowds with the infectious energy and violence of their live concerts. Townshend swung (and still swings) his long right arm like a semaphorist. Roger Daltrey, often shirtless, swung (and still swings) his mic like nunchucks. Keith Moon, who died at age thirty-two, dominated his huge drum kit with jackhammer power and speed. They smashed guitars, speakers and demolished Moon’s drums with explosives. The band learned that mayhem drew crowds. Destruction helped build the brand, but also was costly. The Who swam in debt until its concert versions of “Tommy” reaped the returns the band needed to thrive commercially. The Who’s first big hit may have been “My Generation,” its anthem to the generational rebellion of the 1960s, but insurrection was merely stage direction; the group’s faux stage rebellions were an old-school box-office lure, a demolition derby. Townshend, who wrote around 400 songs for the band, was aware of the contradiction, and perhaps its dangers. Another of his top tunes, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” strikes out against social revolutions, a theme that he took up repeatedly even as he unleashed anarchy on stage. Of course, many supergroups from the 1960s and 1970s flourish by wedding their restive material to their materialism. The Rolling Stones, for one, are famously corporate, and Townshend sold his catalog of songs in 2012 for an estimated $100 million to a rights-management company.
Well, the group’s antics are fading from memory and its tours play to aging boomers with nostalgia for their rebellious youth. So what’s the lure of The Who today? The answer, of course, is the music. Exhibit A is the production of “Tommy” now at the Goodman Theatre in a fully staged version with a terrific and necessarily inexhaustible twenty-nine-person cast of singers and dancers and a great nine-piece rock band with a sound as big and driving as the original music demands.
In addition to The Who’s own performances of “Tommy,” the material was adapted into an antic, psychedelic 1975 film by Ken Russell. The current production is heir to a 1992 production at La Jolla for which director Des McAnuff, the director of the Goodman’s show, too, created a more traditional book.
The story’s bones are the same as the original album. A British couple, The Walkers, falls in love before the man is shipped off to war. He is reported dead and presumed so when the woman gives birth to their son, Tommy. Nevertheless, the man was alive all along. He returns home and finds his wife in the arms of a roughhousing lover, whom he shoots. The young son is traumatized and becomes deaf, dumb and blind and nearly catatonic. The boy is subjected to quack cures and abusive friends and family. And, famously, he excels at pinball. Eventually he comes to and gains a following as a guru and messiah, but ultimately rejects his followers. The book, which plays with themes around trauma, mental health, sexual predation, bullying and the dangers of fascism, handles too much and at too little depth to sell the story. It is the weakest, most immature part of an otherwise mature show. It seems less to expose the horrors of child maltreatment than to trade on them as lurid substitutes for smashing guitars. One obvious, perhaps impossible challenge, is that the action just moves too quickly to get emotionally attached to the characters other than Tommy.
The 2023 version ushers in a new era of projected time-traveling and mind-mending sets that, with the aid of projectors and lasers, move and change quickly as the action in the play rushes on. A year ago, the digital sets would have seemed novel, but several productions—including “Proximity” at Lyric Opera—in the last six months have also used digital tech liberally and brilliantly. Could it be that this format for set design is already long in the tooth? At least it helped give some context to the action—including World War II photos and backgrounds—that linked the action to Tommy’s parents’ war experience, a connection that must have been meaningful to the members of The Who.
The show is full of stirring numbers handled by leads with universally strong singing chops and an ensemble that struts and dances a sinister take on Carnaby Street fashion and culture. Things get rolling, but not yet roiling, with “It’s a Boy,” sung affectingly by Alison Luff as Mrs. Walker. The temperature goes way up with “Sensation,” sung beautifully across a huge vocal range by Ali Louis Bourzgui and by the vocally powerful ensemble. Bourzgui is one of three Tommys, the other two being the boy at younger ages. It’s hard to elicit emotion for a character that exhibits no emotion, but Bourzgui and the two other Tommys, played on different nights by Ava Rose Doty and Presley Rose Jones (Tommy age four) and Annabel Finch and Ezekiel Ruiz (Tommy age ten), eke out plenty of pathos. The first act ends with a show-stopping rendition of “Pinball Wizard,” led by Bobby Conte as the amazed pinball player Tommy dethrones. The first act is all rock opera: pinballs to the walls.
The tenor of the show changes markedly following intermission. As the action moves toward its resolution, the choreography and the songs fall more into English music hall and Broadway modes. It opens with the show’s first cheerful number, “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found,” which, minus its electric instrumentation, might have graced an Edwardian stage. “Tommy,” the musical, ends on its most dramatically moving moment. It’s the single moment when the psychedelic whirl and the cast stands still for the final reprise of “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You.” They take their time, fill the house and give the audience a chance to focus on all the voices, faces and the glory of the music. The wall of sound more than makes up for the strange, imperfect, often luridly sanctimonious book. There is a lot to like in this production beyond the book and the finale alone is reason to go.
“The Who’s Tommy,” onstage at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, extended through August 6.