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The Who's Tommy

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Ali Louis Bourzgui (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The Who's Tommy

By Julia Polinsky

Hold on to your hats. It's going to be a loud, stunning, bumpy ride.

Worshipped by many, the revered subject of Boomer nostalgia and rocker adoration, The Who's Tommy has held a unique place in the pop music world since it debuted in 1969 as a "Rock Opera."" Many of those boomers played that two-record set so often, it wore out. You'd think it would help to be so familiar with the story (such as it is), the music (ditto), the gestalt.

You'd be wrong.

You'd think it might enhance the new Broadway production, now at the Nederlander Theatre, (book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff; music and lyrics by Townshend; additional music by John Entwhistle and Sonny Boy Williamson II)) to have a nodding acquaintance with at least the Ken Russell film or better yet, the 1993 Broadway show. Not really. This Tommy, re-branded The Who's Tommy, stands or falls on its own. I know this, because I attended with someone who knew absolutely nothing about the story or the music. Since confusion reigned from the opening, I got a lot of practice explaining things, from decades-old memory.

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The ensemble of The Who's Tommy (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

For instance, The Who's Tommy takes place over a span of time from 1941 through 1970 and into somewhen called "The Future" in Peter Negrini's projections (the projections are astonishing, mind-bending bludgeons of visual input that push the limits of what can be done on stage these days. Seriously, you could do a number, sit back, and let the aural and visual assault take you over, and the experience enhanced by THC might be overwhelmingly better than watching it straight. Or just plain overwhelming.)

Some of the crucial characters do not age -- Tommy's mother (Alison Luff) and father (Adam Jacobs) and cousin (Bobby Conte) and Wicked Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino), for instance, although Tommy himself is played by three actors: Tiny Tommy was Olive Ross Kline for this performance; Tommy10 was Quinten Kusheba, and Tommy Himself was the talented Ali Louis Bourzgui. Since Tommy Himself was often onstage narrating or commenting on or singing about the action while Tiny Tommy or Tommy10 (or both) were also on stage, mirror gazing -- literally -- well, that can be confusing.

If you want straightforward plot, go elsewhere. Basically, though, in 1941, in the midst of a projection-fest of WWII visuals and bizarrely immature, spasmodic choreography (Lorin Latarro), we see a welder --wait, WHY IS A WELDER ONSTAGE?? When the helmet comes off, gorgeous long auburn hair spills out like a Breck commercial and the welder's a woman! Captain Walker and she fall in love, marry, and he's sent off to war, is reported missing, presumed dead, and she has a baby and a boyfriend and Walker comes home after the war and shoots the boyfriend in front of the boy. Parents insist to Tiny Tommy that, "You didn't hear it/you didn't see it -- you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life, and Tommy is traumatized into darkness and silence. And the mirror.

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Alison Luff, Olive Ross-Kline, Adam

Fast forward. As the decades move along, Tommy is molested, bullied, brutalized, subjected to medical and not-so-medical tests and treatments (the Acid Queen [Christina Sajous] alone: who thought subjecting your 10-year old son to a junkie prostitute was going to HELP his trauma?) until one day, he discovers pinball and becomes the Pinball Wizard of earworm fame.

In an interesting leap of logic, after his mom smashes the mirror he's gazed in for so long, Tommy Himself becomes... famous. For playing pinball. Stadium-filling, Tony-Roberts-level famous, apparently dispensing life lessons along with the pinball mania. As we all know, proselytizing goeth before a fall, so he gets cut down to size and realizes there's no place like home with mum and dad.

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Ali Louis Bourzgui and the Ensemble (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

If you want a coherent plotline, go elsewhere. But who am I to spit in the wind of howling success? Audiences, not all composed of aging boomers who loved the records but also lots of young people: the audiences leap to their feet at the end to give an enthusiastic standing ovation. As they remove their earplugs. Did I mention it's loud? I mean LOUD. And it's visually stunning, in many senses of the word "stunning," in that there's just so much to look at, it's hard to process but also absurdly worth looking at.

All the technical expertise and wizardry Broadway can muster is on display here. Scenic design from David Korins, Gareth Owen's sound design, Amanda Zieve's lighting, and the spectacularly talented ensemble: so much good work, so much dedication, so much talent. If only the show were worth the work, time, care, thought, blood sweat tears and gobs and gobs of money that went into it.

The Who's Tommy

At the Nederlander Theatre

208 W. 41st St.

2 hours 10 minutes