Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The Who’s Tommy

The hit rock musical returns to Broadway

Written by:
Nella Vera
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“The Who’s Tommy” opened this spring at the Nederlander Theater in NYC in its first Broadway revival since the landmark 1993 production that propelled a young Michael Cerveris into musical theater stardom for his portrayal of the title character. Based on the rock opera concept album by The Who, the show follows the London-based Walker family – from the time Mr. and Mrs. Walker first meet in 1940 into their only son’s young adulthood.

During World War II, Captain Walker parachutes into Germany and is captured. Unbeknownst to everyone at home, he is alive and will be freed when the war ends in 1945. Back home, however, he is presumed dead while his wife is pregnant with Tommy.  Four years later, she and a new lover celebrate her 21st birthday only to receive a surprise visit from her returned (and very much alive) husband. A fight between the two men ensues, with Captain Walker shooting the other man. This is all witnessed by Tommy, whose parents shake passionately and admonish him against telling anyone what he has seen with the song “What About the Boy?” (You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it. You never heard it, not a word of it. You won’t say nothing to no one. Never tell a soul, what you know is the truth.)  Following this song, Tommy falls into a semi-catatonic state, not appearing to hear or respond to any stimuli.  

Over the next several years, Tommy’s parents bring him to doctors and specialists, church, and even a lady of the night (“The Acid Queen”) to cure him but it is to no avail. Curiously, he responds to the lights and sounds of the pinball machine and his Cousin Kevin begins to take him along to the local arcade – he becomes the “Pinball Wizard.”  Just as his parents are about to give up and send Tommy away to an institution, he is awakened out of his state by the breaking of a mirror. He goes on to become a celebrity and motivational guru to the young people of the U.K., who find inspiration in his story.

The original 1993 production of “Tommy” was a sensational combination of powerhouse performances, dazzling sets, and flashy special effects. This revival, also directed by Des McAnuff who helmed the first production, wisely goes in a different direction. While the original production made the audience members feel at times like they were inside a pinball machine, this production aims to bring you deep into Tommy’s head. The minimal yet effective sets by David Korins work nicely with the sophisticated projections by Peter Nigrini.  The spinning pinball machine of the first production is replaced by a simple outline that serves to create intimacy between the audience and Tommy.  The production design evokes both the past and the future, with futuristic touches that somehow work with the post-war mod feel of the piece.

Ali Louis Bourzgui makes a smashing Broadway debut as a stoic, reflective Tommy.  He is charismatic but more restrained than Cerveris was in the role. He leans more into being the storyteller than the protagonist but he picks his moments and manages to bring the house down a few times with his soulful yet commanding vocals.  Adam Jacobs and Alison Luff give beautifully nuanced performances as Tommy’s tortured, long-suffering parents. John Ambrosino is appropriately creepy as the pedophile Uncle Ernie, while Bobby Conte, as Cousin Kevin, is a delicious, convincing brat whose bullying seems to fly under the radar from the rest of the family.

Ali Louis Bourzgui, photo by Matthew Murphy.

While Bourzgui has the bulk of the songs, two other younger actors play Tommy as a child. I saw Cecilia Ann Popp and Quinten Kusheba in these parts and both were extraordinary. Child actors on Broadway can be hit or miss but these two young thesps were spot on, never losing focus and keeping Tommy locked in his world as the adults around them performed choreography, lifted them, turned them upside down, and passed them around like dolls.

But of course, the star of this show is the music, and fans of The Who at the performance I attended were clearly thrilled to welcome “Tommy” back to Broadway.  It makes sense that a score written as a rock opera would lend itself well to the stage – the music is complex and epic, grand with hints of 60s counterculture while at the same time serving the story. More than any other aspect of the show, it is the show’s timeless score (and the genius of Pete Townshend) that takes the audience on its own amazing journey. 

“The Who’s Tommy” plays at the Nederlander Theater in NYC. Tickets at

Photos by Matthew Murphy.

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