‘The Who’s Tommy’ Broadway Review: See Me, Feel Sorry for Me

Pete Townshend’s musical memoir reaches for the hankies instead of going for the jugular

"The Who's Tommy" on Broadway
"The Who's Tommy" (Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

I saw Ken Russell’s movie “Tommy” when it opened in 1975 and vividly recall a number of scenes, especially Ann-Margret rolling around in what looked like a vat of Campbell’s baked beans. I saw Des McAnuff’s stage musical “The Who’s Tommy” when it opened on Broadway in 1993, and I remember nothing about it.

Well, McAnuff is back at it with a new revival of “The Who’s Tommy” that opened Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre, and it made me want to see the Russell movie again. Without much regard for telling a cogent story, the wild and erratically creative British film director turned each of Pete Townshend’s songs into a spectacle, often performed in cameos by an eclectic group of stars, including Elton John, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed played cartoon parents to Roger Daltrey’s wide-eyed Tommy.  

McAnuff and Townshend’s book for the stage musical opts for a stronger narrative about the latter’s own disastrous childhood in post-World War II England. David Korins’ set for this revival features a number of frames within frames that lead to a framed mirror that the young Tommy (Cecilia Ann Popp and Quinten Kusheba, both being amusingly zombie-like) becomes obsessed with, lost in his own image.

The visuals, however, primarily depend on Peter Nigrini’s constantly changing projection designs. In many cases, historic photographs of an urban England are used, and Nigrini has manipulated them significantly through color and distortion to blend seamlessly into more abstract visualizations of Tommy’s consciousness. Some tableaux are breathtaking; others are rather pedestrian, especially when Nigrini’s projections recede and McAnuff’s direction relies on Sarafina Bush’s unimaginative costumes and Lorin Latarro’s equally mundane choreography.

McAnuff’s concept in this revival is to emphasize the blue-collar world of Tommy’s existence, an approach that totally eschews the irreverence of Russell’s film. Since “The Who’s Tommy” first appeared on Broadway over 30 years ago, the litany of abuses exposed here — drugs, child abuse, incest, physical challenges, bullying, religious zealotry — have been turned into best-seller fodder. And if there’s anything that needs a little sending-up, it is this kind of see-me, feel-sorry-for-me memoir. 

While Christina Sajous’ Acid Queen attempts to recycle Tina Turner from the movie, McAnuff’s work here brings to mind, at odd moments, not Russell’s movie, but Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” The chorus often finds itself making geometric configurations, as if a symbol of their oppression. In Lang’s silent film classic,  when the underground workers are finally freed from their capitalistic oppressors, they continue to march in fascist unison. In this “Tommy,” when the ensemble gloriously reprises “Listening to You” at the end, it’s like something out of a Nuremberg rally.

Playing Tommy’s parents, Alison Luff and Adam Jacobs are stuck wearing Bush’s drab costumes and their attempts to emote are mawkish since no one told them they’re playing stick figures.

What gives this production some sense of fun, though, is Ali Louis Bourzgui. As the grown-up Tommy, he brings a beguiling Little Prince nonchalance to musical theater’s most abused character.

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